Stunts and potentially unsafe behaviour in ads – where to draw the line

Who: Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA), HJ Heinz Foods UK Ltd (Heinz), Nike European Operations Netherlands B.V. (Nike), MTV Networks Europe (MTV).

Where: UK

When: November 2016

Law stated as at: 14 December 2016

What happened:

The ASA published three separate adjudications in in November 2016 relating to TV ads, all of which were subject to complaints that they condoned or encouraged behaviour that prejudiced health and safety, especially in relation to children and teenagers. The ads differed in how they presented potentially unsafe behaviour, from the everyday to stunts, which appears to have influenced the ASA’s decisions.


The ASA upheld complaints that a Heinz TV ad, which featured children, teenagers and adults using full and empty tins of baked beans to drum out a song along with the on-screen message of “Learn the #CanSong”, encouraged unsafe practice and featured behaviour which could be dangerous for children to emulate.

Heinz pointed out that the ad referenced Facebook (and social media sites more generally) which featured tutorial videos explaining how to safely perform the #CanSong (including how to tape the edges of an empty can).

However, the ASA upheld the complaints on the basis that the ad actively encouraged viewers to recreate the song without including any information about how to safely recreate it within the ad itself. In addition, although the actors were proficient in performing the song, the ASA held that viewers were likely to make more mistakes while flipping and twirling the empty can, which may heighten the risk of injury.


In contrast to the Heinz ad, the ASA did not uphold complaints that a TV ad for Nike was likely to condone or encourage such behaviour.

The ad featured two professional basketball players in a crash test centre, wearing helmets and goggles. One of the players knelt on the roof of a moving van and, as the van crashed into a barrier, the player was propelled forward whilst catching a ball thrown by the other player.

The ASA reached this conclusion on the basis that the ad would be seen as an exaggerated stunt and viewers were highly unlikely to view it as an accurate demonstration of the basketball players’ skill and abilities. This was reinforced by the setting (a crash centre) and the safety clothing, both of which suggested that the ad depicted a professional stunt and was unlikely to encourage dangerous activities.  This was in contrast to the Heinz ad which was set in a domestic and everyday background and consumers were actively encouraged to emulate the behaviour shown in the ad.


This ASA adjudication also related to a TV ad, this time for a competition relating to the film “Nerve”. A voice-over during the ad stated, “Welcome to Nerve. Nerve is like truth or dare, minus the truth.  To celebrate the release of Nerve, we are giving you the chance to win a cash prize.  We just want you to show some nerve.  Head to to choose a dare, then share it at @MTVUK with #MTVGOTNERVE to enter.  Are you ready to play?”  This was accompanied by scenes from the film which included a man lying on train tracks as a train passed over him and a group of men jumping from a cliff into the sea.

The ASA held that young adults were shown engaging in a number of extremely dangerous activities. In addition, the scenes appeared to be shot on mobile phones and one shot was overlaid with social media style graphics which showed a woman swiping the word “accept”.  The ASA felt that all of these devices reinforced the theme of young adults daring each other through social media.

The ASA accepted that the ad did not actively encourage viewers to participate in the behaviour shown in the ad and the dares that entrants had to complete in order to enter into the competition were not dangerous. However, they held that the ad tapped into trends in social media and the line “show some nerve” was likely to encourage dangerous behaviour in teenagers and young adults.

Why this matters:

These cases, especially the Heinz adjudication, attracted much media attention and criticism as they do not necessarily present clear guidance for advertisers and marketers to follow. The Heinz ad breached the BCAP Code because it did not provide information to viewers on how to recreate the song safely.  In contrast, the MTV ad linked to a competition, which only asked participants to carry out “safe” acts when they entered the competition, but the ad breached the BCAP Code because the ad itself featured dangerous behaviour.  By contrast, the Nike ad was interpreted as a stunt and therefore unlikely to encourage unsafe behaviour.

It remains difficult for advertisers to know where to draw the line following these three adjudications. It remains good practice to depict any potentially unsafe actions and behaviours as unconnected to real life and in an exaggerated style.  The MTV ad appears to have fallen foul of the BCAP Code because, although the actions themselves appear to have been exaggerated, the style of filming made it appear less stylised and it was linked to a competition where participants had to carry out (safe) dares.  In addition advertisers should ensure that any ads showing potentially unsafe behaviour do not encourage viewers to recreate it in any way.

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