Nick Johnson reviews UK laws/regulations relating to the use of religious references in advertising.
- The law of blasphemy
- Adverse publicity
- Regulatory advertising codes
- Relevant code sections
- Recent ASA decisions
Over the years, advertisers have raided almost every aspect of human culture in their quest for images, language and concepts that are understood by and appeal to broad sections of society. It should come as no surprise therefore that religion and religious imagery should surface from time to time in advertising material. Indeed, given that religion and commerce are generally regarded as being wholly separate areas of human experience, it is not hard to see how using religious themes in a commercial context could have the potential to generate particularly powerful communication.
However, just as politics and religion are to be avoided in polite dinner table conversation, so religion should be regarded very warily as a source of inspiration and content for advertisements. Even in the modern, secular world and the multi-faith culture of today's Britain, the strength of people's religious convictions and the reverence accorded to sacred images and themes should not be underestimated.
Once upon a time, many advertisers would have steered well clear of religious themes for fear of falling foul of the blasphemy laws in England and Wales. Perhaps surprisingly, these laws still exist, and blasphemy is still a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine. The offence applies to matter published which "contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England, as by law established".
It should be noted that the offence applies only to the faith of the established Anglican church. It does not apply to Muslims, Hindus, Baptists, Roman Catholics and other faiths. There has been only one prosecution since 1922. This was a successful private prosecution brought by Mary Whitehouse in 1976 in relation to a poem published in Gay News, which described Jesus' body in homo-erotic language.
Some have sought to argue that the law of blasphemy is inconsistent with rights to freedom of expression protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Decisions of the European Court of Human Rights however have indicated that the law of blasphemy is regarded as justified under the "margin of appreciation" allowed to member states.
These days, "blasphemous" advertising is more likely to cause adverse publicity and/or to be caught by the various regulatory advertising codes than to be illegal. Recent news stories offer plenty of examples of where brand-owners have misjudged public reaction, sometimes at great cost:
The Sunday Times ran into trouble with its press advertisements featuring an image of Raquel Welch in a leather bikini and tied to a wooden cross. In responding to 140 complaints made to the ASA by members of the public, the paper explained that the image in question was a photograph by Terry O'Neill. It was being used to advertise "Heavenly Bodies", a six-part photographic series in The Sunday Times magazine featuring O'Neill's work. The paper argued that it was important to understand the context and period in which the photograph was taken and how it reflected the photographer's view that the 1960s was a decade that "crucified" the ideal of womanhood, valuing women only for their sexuality. The ASA considered that most readers would be unaware of the origin and motivation behind the photograph, and upheld complaints that the ad was blasphemous to Christians.
Heineken suffered negative press coverage as a result of a poster ad it ran prior to Christmas 1998 as part of its "How refreshing…" campaign. The ad showed what appeared to be a traditional nativity scene under the words "IT'S A GIRL!". As a result of widespread public complaint about this irreverent treatment of a key Christian topic, Heineken withdrew the ad from the 5,800 poster sites where it was displayed.
The largest number of complaints ever received by the ASA arose from a 1995 British Safety Council ad which featured the Pope wearing a hard hat with the line: "The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom." A record 1,191 people wrote to the regulator to register their objections.
And it is not just Christians that have been offended by brand-owners:
- In 1997 shoemakers Clarks angered Britain's Hindu community by naming two new designs of leather shoes after the deities Krishna and Vishnu. Given that Hindus regard the cow as sacred and footwear as unclean, Clarks' branding was regarded as highly offensive and insulting. Clarks apologised for its blunder and ordered its staff to cover up the names on all packaging and materials.
- In a similar incident, Nike attracted criticism from Muslims for using a symbol of Allah on a range of training shoes.
- In 1992, Leicester Hindus demanded that a French waste management company remove its initials, SITA, from the sides of its vehicles, as this spelt the name of a Hindu goddess.
Regulatory advertising codes
There are separate regulatory codes for TV, for radio and for non-broadcast advertisements. Each of these has provisions relating to taste and decency, and the radio and non-broadcast codes both deal expressly with the use of religious themes (see table). While the rules are essentially straightforward, interpreting them will tend to involve making difficult judgement calls.
The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre "Notes of Guidance" give some guidelines as to what will and will not be acceptable on TV and radio (they also go into painstaking detail on the issue of religious music). Regulatory decisions, however, will ultimately turn on the particular facts of each case and whether the ad offends against the then prevailing standards of decency. It appears that the choice of media in which the ad is run can be a highly relevant factor – just because an ad is acceptable when run as a press ad in, say, the Guardian does not mean that it would necessarily be acceptable as a poster ad (see "Recent ASA decisions on complaints of religious offence").
Consumer research carried out by the ASA in 1998 reportedly showed remarkable consistency in public opinion as to what was considered unacceptable in advertising. It pinpointed three particular "no-go" areas, one of which was religion (the others were death and bad language). 78% of a representative sample of the population are reported as having agreed with the statement that "disrespectful references to any religion, race or culture should never be allowed".
While criminal prosecutions for blasphemy are these days very much a rarity, it is clear that ill-judged religious references can nevertheless be costly for advertisers. Where offence has been caused, ads may have to be withdrawn and media bookings cancelled. More importantly, damage may also have been done to the product's brand values and to the advertiser's relationships with media owners and consumers.
|Hi-Q||A regional press ad for Hi-Q, a car fitter, appeared during Easter week 1998. It claimed "AT LAST, A FASTFIT TEAM YOU CAN PUT YOUR FAITH IN" and showed a hand holding a cross-shaped wheel-nut spanner. The ASA received 7 complaints from readers who objected that the ad trivialised a Christian icon, but concluded that the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. The newspaper in which the ad had been run, however, said they would not publish it again. (ASA monthly report, September 1998)|
|Rey & Co.||The ASA received 124 complaints in 1998 concerning a national press campaign for a stationery manufacturer. The five ads used ecclesiastical lettering and the slogan "Rey & Co. Born Again Paper". All of the ads relied on humorous religious references (eg one was headed "It's a sign. It's a sign.", claimed "Behold! The King of paper is born…Every kind of paper to make all you communications divine…You'll see it's a revelation." and featured a picture of a man holding up an "Out to Lunch" sign outside a barber's shop). The ASA found that four of the ads did not breach the Codes, but that one did. The offending ad was headlined "Jesus he loves me" and claimed "Feel the power of his love – or hers. Enchant them with a loving message you've designed and printed on a Rey & Co greetings card. For Rey & Co is the range of papers wholly, wholly, wholly designed to set your creativity free. Come fill your letterbox with joy as well…The perfect way to prove your devotion." The ad showed a woman standing in front of a stained glass door. The ASA considered this ad was "less likely to be considered as humorous, because of the reference to Jesus in an advertisement for paper". (ASA monthly report, August 1998)|
|Diesel||Diesel prompted 83 complaints when they ran a series of magazine and poster advertisements for their jeans. Some of the ads featured a photograph of four young women dressed as nuns from the waist up, wearing jeans and holding rosaries, with a statue of the Virgin Mary behind them, also wearing jeans. The advertisement claimed "Pure virginal 100% cotton. Soft yet miraculously strong. Our jeans are cut from superior denim, then carefully assembled by devoted Diesel followers. The finest denim clothing. This is our mission." The ASA upheld the complaints, stating that it considered it unacceptable to depict nuns as sexual beings and expressing concern that Diesel had used the Virgin Mary on posters (which would be seen by a wide, untargeted audience). (ASA monthly report, July 1998)|
|Vogue||A press ad for Vogue magazine received 3 complaints because of its headline "From the bible. 368 pages of revelations. The best of the international collections in Vogue this March.". The complainants objected that this was offensive as it devalued the Bible. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, considering it was not offensive to use the word "bible" to mean a magazine that was invaluable. (ASA monthly report, July 1998)|
|Q Magazine||Q Magazine ran an ad in the Guardian headed "Jesus! It's Madonna WORLD EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!". The ASA considered the play on the names Jesus and Madonna was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to readers of the Guardian, but "asked the advertisers to take care when using this approach in future". (ASA monthly report, July 1998)|
|Virgin Our Price||The ASA received a petition signed by 500 people who objected to a Virgin Our Price leaflet for CDs, videos, computer games and books. It was headed "immaculate selection" and featured four different people with objects behind them that made them look as if they had a halo, wings or a crown. The ASA decided the leaflet was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. (ASA monthly report, July 1998)|