Who: Over Farm Retail Ltd (“Over Farm”) and the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”)
When: 7 December 2016
Law stated as at: 24 January 2017
Once a year, Over Farm in Gloucestershire becomes the unlikely venue for “Frightmare Halloween Festival“, billed as the South West’s largest Halloween event. A billboard poster campaign was launched to advertise the 2016 event, but the scary imagery didn’t go down a treat with everyone. The ASA received a complaint that the posters were not appropriate for untargeted public display where children could see them. After considering the issues, the ASA upheld the complaint and found that the ads breached CAP Code requirements for advertisers to ensure marketing communications are prepared in a socially responsible manner.
The offending poster featured images of a man and two women, all wearing horror-style prosthetic makeup, along with an animated character holding a chainsaw in one hand and a decapitated head in the other. Some additional text read “LIVE HORROR ATTRACTIONS” in a stylised blood-splatter red font.
The posters were featured in various public locations, including one outside a train station. The complainant’s child saw this particular poster and was apparently distressed by it.
The response from Over Farm argued that the three characters featured on the posters would be in attendance at the festival, presumably making the point that these photos were descriptive and not arbitrarily chosen images. Over Farm also stated that the three characters selected for the posters were “not as grotesque” as many of the other characters that would be attending the festival; evidence that steps had been taken to avoid unnecessary distress. Indeed, the intention was, Over Farm maintained, not to scare children at all but to ensure that the ads appealed directly to adults (while making clear that the event was not aimed at kids).
Primesight, the outdoor advertising firm behind the poster campaign, explained that they had checked there were no schools within 100-200 yards, with the closest school being 800 yards away. It was also noted that only one person had raised a complaint.
Rule 1.3 of the CAP Code provides that marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
The ASA considered that, although the posters may be unlikely to cause distress to adults or older children, they might well distress young children. The ASA decided that the placement of the poster outside a train station breached the Code, as it allowed the ads to be displayed in an “untargeted medium” where they were likely to be seen by young children which was therefore irresponsible.
Why this matters:
This adjudication is a reminder that advertisers (and their agencies) must plan the placement of campaigns carefully and ensure that ads are properly targeted to their audience, particularly where content might not be suitable for all. This is true both for outdoor as well as online advertising, but may be more difficult to achieve in practice for outdoor campaigns (as this case shows). It will always be relevant to consider whether the design of an ad together with the choice of location for its display have been prepared in a socially responsible manner.
By way of example, it is interesting to note that Primesight suggested to the ASA that clearing a radius of 100-200 metres around any schools might be sufficient to prevent young children from seeing the posters. However, children do not only exist in the immediate vicinity of schools and more extensive and sophisticated planning will usually be required in order to successfully limit the audience for an ad, particularly those displayed outdoors.