Who: Advertising Standards Authority (ASA); Fischen Medical Ltd t/a The Vapes; Alzheimer’s Research UK
When: 15 February 2017
Law stated as at: 10 April 2017
As we emerge from winter and enjoy some warmer weather, we consider the lessons learned from two recent ASA rulings on ads featuring images of Santa Claus, which were run during the festive period.
The first ruling involved three electronic billboard ads for e-cigarette products from a company trading under the name The Vapes. One of the ads featured a vaping cartoon Santa, depicted in full biker mode wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off to reveal a Rudolph tattoo. The accompanying text read “All Santa wants for Christmas“. There was also a version of the ad featuring a cartoon gingerbread man and one with a vaping Christmas elf.
Complaints were raised on the basis that the cartoon-style Christmas imagery meant that the ads were likely to appeal to appeal to children under the age of 18 and were socially irresponsible. The brand owner, Fischen Medical Ltd, argued in response that the characters had purposefully been represented in an unconventional manner, providing an almost ‘sinister twist’ on familiar seasonal imagery, which would be expected to appeal to adults and not resonate with children.
The ASA took on board the argument that the ads were not designed to appeal to children, but nonetheless held that cartoons of well-known characters were more child-like than adult in nature. The adult ‘twist’ on these images would not, overall, lessen the appeal of the images to children.
Dementia charity ad
The second ruling considered an ad from the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK which followed the story, narrated by Stephen Fry and animated by Aardman, of Santa forgetting Christmas as a result of dementia. The ad depicted a girl discovering that Santa no longer delivers presents, so travels to the North Pole where she is told by the elves that Santa could be saved by Alzheimer’s research.
Thirty six people contacted the ASA to complain that the ad was offensive, could cause distress to children and questioned whether it was suitable to be broadcast at times when children could see it. The advertiser noted in its response that significant research had been undertaken in the preparation of the ad, including audience research involving the parents of young children. The charity was consequently satisfied that the ad portrayed the issue of dementia in a ‘sensitive’ manner and did not use unnecessary shock tactics. Clearcast had also cleared the ad for broadcast with an ex-kids scheduling restriction, meaning that the ad was not shown in or alongside children’s programmes and Alzheimer’s Research UK had ensured that it was not shown before 7.30pm (except on one occasion at 7.15pm due to a relevant Emmerdale storyline).
The ASA rejected the complaints and concluded that the ad dealt with an important issue in a non-graphic way and with a generally positive ending. Although the nature of the story and representation of Santa was likely to cause some discomfort to younger children, the ex-kids restriction and generally sensitive handling of the subject matter was considered sufficient to ensure that the ad would not cause disproportionate distress, harm or offence.
Why this matters:
Advertisers should carefully consider the use of well-known Christmas characters, particularly with regards to the potential impact on young children.
The ruling against The Vapes saw the ASA consider the ads against the new e-cigarette rules, which prohibit socially irresponsible ads for vapes (rule 22.1) and provide that ads should not be likely to appeal particularly to people aged under 18 (rule 22.9). In particular, advertisers should remember that ads for e-cigarette products should not depict characters or use imagery likely to appeal predominantly to those under 18. This not only entails carefully considering the cultural context of any characters used (whether real or fictional), but also the style of representation and use of surrounding design elements.
In the case of the Alzheimer’s Research UK ad, the number of complaints lodged evidence the difficulty of designing ads which deal with important issues in a hard-hitting manner, while not causing harm, offence or distress to children. More leeway has traditionally been granted by the ASA to public service and charity ads, due to the importance of the issues they deal with. However, advertisers should avoid unduly graphic images or shock tactics and ensure that any broadcast ads are properly cleared.