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Adverts: Why do people find some themes offensive?

Most common themes of complaint from adverts appearing in the ASA's annual top 10

Every year thousands of people complain about adverts, taking offence over messages intended merely to sell products. But which themes are the most controversial and why, asks Tom de Castella.

The most complained about advert of 2010 featured a team of blind footballers kicking around a ball with a bell on it until it goes out of play. Then a cat with a bell wanders onto the pitch, the players restart their game and a painful miaow is heard.

This attempt at a blackly humorous scenario from gambling firm Paddy Power provoked more than 1,300 people into complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority. It contains two themes that are a classic cause for complaint - depiction of disabled people, and ill-treatment of an animal.

With the UK home to millions of avowed animal lovers, it is perhaps surprising that any advertiser would risk even the merest suggestion of cruelty to fluffy creatures.

But the fifth most complained about ad of 2010 - for John Lewis - was another one that featured a less than happy animal. It showed a Christmas scene in which a dog was living in a kennel outside surrounded by snow. It provoked 316 complaints and even calls for a boycott of the company until John Lewis opted to remove the section involving the dog.

One angry viewer posted on a forum: "I felt very low after watching this advert. I feel it condones animal cruelty. A dog left outside in the thick snow could end up with a fatal case of hypothermia."

There's a good reason for using animals in ads, says Claire Beale, editor of Campaign magazine, but there can be pitfalls. "Brands use animals because they tap straight in to the nation's emotions -- cats and dogs, obviously, can be relied upon to get most people drooling, but that same sort of emotional response means there's also a hardcore of consumers who will be worrying about animals being abused or exploited in the name of commercial gain."

Of course, many advertisers adopt deliberately edgy themes either in order to generate media coverage or to to target a particular demographic which is less sensitive.

Humour and absurdism can allow advertisers to push the boundaries. "The Paddy Power ad was designed to appeal to a young, male audience and used surreal humour to temper the shock-value," Beale says. "Most of the people who saw it will have understood it doesn't condone animal cruelty and appreciated that one of the bedrocks of humour is to make us feel uncomfortable."

Disabled campaigners suggested that the portrayal of the blind footballers was demeaning, and a common provocation is is anything that can be construed as offensive to minorities. Other causes of offence include violence, blasphemy, sexism and, a very common source of complaint, general unsuitability for children.

And offensiveness isn't the only reason adverts generate complaints. The most common cause for complaints in broadcast ads is offence, but the vast majority of complaints for non-broadcast ads are about misleading messages.

Sexual themes often cause problems.

The second most complained about advert of 2010 was for family planning charity Marie Stopes, which was attacked for promoting abortion. The advert did not mention abortion, but complainants felt it was implied.

Mediawatch UK - formerly Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers' and Listeners' Association - was one of the 1,088 complainants but it was not upheld by the ASA.

"We complained not because we're pro-life but because the advertising of abortion is prohibited," says Vivienne Pattison, the campaign body's director. She is also against the advertising of condoms on daytime TV, a category of ad that might cause uncomfortable moments for teenagers and their parents.

Image caption Even alluding to animal distress can provoke many complaints

Much of the ASA's complaints procedure involves dealing with complaints about the scheduling of an adverts and questions of visiblity to children. Inappropriateness for children is the most common reason for complaints to the ASA over the last six years. With half of parents with children under six letting their offspring watch shows like Coronation Street and X Factor, the problem can only be solved by a strict advertising watershed, Pattison argues.

Gender stereotyping is another area where viewers see red. And it is increasingly an issue about stereotyping of men. This was the case with an ad for Home Pride's oven cleaner which boasted "so easy, even a man can do it".

Whereas once it was women being portrayed as bimbos, the boot is now on the other foot. For Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy it's understandable why advertisers feel they can't target women. "These days you've got to have a bright woman and a man who's a bit of a dolt. While it was original at first it's become annoying to men."

Despite these categories, one can't always predict what will offend people. The most complained about advertisement to the ASA - for KFC's Zinger Crunch - featured call centre workers singing with their mouths full of food.

It prompted 1,710 people to complain, many of them parents shocked at the poor table manners on show. For Sutherland it demonstrates that sometimes people in "adland" get out of touch from their fellow countrymen.

But while advertisers want to be liked, a viewers' revolt may not matter much in the end. "Perhaps the people who complained don't eat in KFC. I love KFC but I don't go there for amazing linen or table manners," Sutherland says.

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