Did the ASA consider use of the word “mental” in a radio ad to represent use of colloquial language or language intended to demean and ridicule mental health issues? Anna Montes tries to find the line between today’s everyday language and offence.
Who: Advertising Standards Authority
When: 8 July 2009
Where: United Kingdom
Law stated as at: 31 July 2009
Bognor Motors, a car dealership in Bognor Regis, recently launched a new radio campaign which contained the following claims: "Did you know the service department at Bognor Motors can collect your car or van from your home or work service it, MOT it and even clean it inside and out and deliver it back to you for just £99.99 … For leasing, sales service and rental, if you don't go to Bognor Motors, you must be mental.". The Capital Project Trust (CPT) complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regarding the use of the words "you must be mental" and challenged whether the ad was offensive to those with mental health problems. CPT took a particular interest in this ad as it is a mental health charity.
As part of its investigations into the ad, the ASA sought the views of Bognor Motors which argued the word "mental" is often used in everyday common language without serious implication and it is not considered by the general public to be an offensive term. Bognor Motors claimed the ad had been created in good humour with the word "mental" being used in an appropriate context within the ad and the ad had not been directed at those with mental health issues. In any event, upon being notified of the compliant to the ASA, Bognor Motors took the decision to withdraw the ad from broadcast.
When asked for its views, the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre considered that, in the case of this particular ad, the word "mental" had been used in its colloquial and innocuous sense and it was its belief that the ad was unlikely to offend listeners generally, or offend those with mental health problems in particular. However, the ASA took a different approach and upheld the complaint against Bognor Motors. It was the view of the ASA that listeners would infer that the word "mental" in the context of this particular ad would refer to those potential customers who chose not to take advantage of the services offered by Bognor Motors and that those customers were therefore not of full mental capacity as a result of their actions. The ASA had sympathy for CPT's concerns that the use of the word "mental" was a "pejorative term habitually used to demean or ridicule people with mental health problems". The ASA considered that was the context in which the word would be understood as a result of its use within the ad concerned. The ASA therefore held that the reference was likely to be seen to denigrate those with mental health problems and therefore had the potential to cause serious offence to some listeners. As a result, the ad was held to have breached rule 9 of section 2 of the CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code and Bognor Motors were prevented from broadcasting the ad again without making amendments to its content.
Why this matters:
This adjudication illustrates the importance of advertisers needing to consider whether the content of their ads could cause public offence when they contain terms which may have made their way into general language but which nonetheless could be taken as offensive. Sometimes what constitutes offensive material can be quite a subjective question but it is a matter that advertisers need to consider nonetheless. As rule 9 of section 2 of the CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code itself states, where good taste, decency and offence to public feeling are concerned, standards of taste can be subjective and individual reactions can differ considerably. Advertisers must take into account any sensitivities that sections of the likely audience of an ad may have. Where mental health references are concerned the CAP (Broadcast) Radio Advertising Standards Code requires that "those who have physical, sensory, intellectual or mental health disabilities should not be demeaned or ridiculed" so advertisers must carefully assess whether content in their ad falls on the right side of the line between humour and offence.