Complaints about violent advertising have risen considerably over the past year, prompting the ASA to hold a debate on the use of violent imagery in advertising. Can the use of violent imagery in advertising ever be justified? Is it ever appropriate to use violence in advertising in a humorous manner? Phil Lee reports.
Topic: Taste and decency
Who: The Advertising Standards Authority
When: 21 November 2007
Law stated as at: 26 November 2007
On 21 November 2007, the ASA hosted a seminar in Nottingham on the use of violence in advertising. The seminar was organised to address the growing number of complaints received by the ASA concerning this issue, and invited both those with a personal and a professional concern about the use of violence in advertising to air their views.
How significant is the growth in complaints received by the ASA?
According to its website (click here for details), the ASA has received 1,748 complaints about 523 advertisements this year alone; by comparison, it received just 1,054 complaints about 254 advertisements throughout the whole of 2006. To put this in perspective, this represents a year-on-year change in overall complaints of 165% and in offending adverts by a massive 205%. Examples of offenders that (rightly or wrongly) enjoyed particularly high-profile advertising campaigns due to the use of violent imagery include the recently-banned MFI advert showing a woman physically attacking her husband for leaving a toilet seat up in an MFI store (which received an enormous 217 complaints) and the now infamous 2005 Reebok advertisement in which 50 Cent counted the nine times he had been shot.
Issues for discussion
The seminar was hosted by the ASA's new chairman Lord Smith, who joined the regulator earlier this year, and focused on four key categories of violence: (i) the depiction of guns and knives; (ii) horror films; (iii) video games; and (iv) general violence.
Participants were invited to debate the issues surrounding these categories of violence, including whether the use of violent imagery in advertising can ever be a good thing (for example, when used to highlight a good cause) or whether it is ever appropriate to use violence in a humorous manner. As well as encouraging participants to have their say, the seminar provided participants with an opportunity to learn more about the ASA's efforts to prevent violent advertising from appearing.
The debate had as a particular focus the issue of how best to protect children from harmful or offensive advertising. Given that one of the topics up for debate also concerned violent imagery in video games, the ASA's seminar was well-timed; these issues already being at the forefront of the video games industry's mind in light of the government's Byron review on the risks to children from exposure to potentially harmful or inappropriate material on the internet and in video games.
This has led some commentators to speculate that the ASA seminar was prompted by the Byron review although this suggestion has so far been denied by the ASA, which claims that it planned the seminar well in advance of the launch of the Byron review.
What happens next?
The ASA will now compile the issues discussed at its seminar into a report which it will send to its decision-making council, intending this report to assist it in adjudicating future complaints about violent advertising. The ASA will make a copy of the report available on its website in due course.
Why this matters:
The guiding principle of the ASA is that adverts must be "legal, decent, honest and truthful" and the CAP code on broadcast advertising, in particular, states that "Advertisements must not encourage or condone violence or cruelty". If the increase in complaints received by the ASA is anything to go by, it would seem that the ASA is under significant pressure to secure industry compliance with these principles. Whilst the seminar will undoubtedly have provided a useful forum for public and senior industry executives alike to discuss the issues, it is important for the ASA to demonstrate that it is not merely a "talking shop" and has on the contrary identified clear action points which the ASA will now implement. In this regard, the ASA is treading a thin line and getting it wrong will inevitably draw fire from either the public or industry. The ASA's report, when published, will certainly make for interesting reading.