In 2014, the ASA received (yet again) a record number of complaints. It attributed the record to an increase in:

  • the use of social media as a platform for promoting business; and
  • “copycat websites”, which replicate government websites in order to generate revenue from unsuspecting users.

Notwithstanding the above, it is established reputable companies that account for the ASA’s list of the “Top Five” most complained about adverts in 2014.

ASA’s  Top Five most complained about adverts and websites

Click here to view table.

It will not surprise those who follow ASA adjudications to see that Paddy Power’s Oscar Pistorius advert received the most complaints in 2014 (the advert received nearly the same number of complaints as the nine next most complained about adverts combined).  The advert (which appeared in The Sun on Sunday) has received widespread publicity. In summary the advert depicted the disgraced athlete as an Oscar Academy Award statue (Oscar Pistorius was at the time on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). The advert contained the text:

“IT’S OSCAR TIME”, “MONEY BACK IF HE WALKS” and “WE WILL REFUND ALL LOSING BETS ON THE OSCAR PISTORIUS TRIAL IF HE IS FOUND NOT GUILTY”. (The advert is readily available online; a search for the term “Paddy Power” on Google Images presents the advert amongst the top search results.)

Unsurprisingly, the ASA decided to ban the advert, as it “incentivised betting on a murder trial”, “trivialised the death of a woman” and “mocked the athlete’s disability”.  Paddy Power was told that the advert must not appear again in its current form and was told to ensure that future adverts did not cause serious or widespread offence or bring advertising into disrepute.

The second most complained about advert (that was found to breach the CAP Code) was an email sent from The Sun to subscribers of its Dream Team fantasy football competition, offering a date with a page 3 model as part of a prize draw. The ASA upheld the complaints finding that the advert was offensive and irresponsible for presenting women as objects to be won. Further the ASA ruled that the advert must not appear again in its current form and News UK was told to ensure that its future advertising contained nothing that was socially irresponsible or likely to cause serious or widespread offence. 

The Paddy Power and News UK cases are not exceptional (the ASA reviews hundreds of advertisements each year) and highlight the balance between creative advertising and compliance with the CAP Code that all companies face. In the above cases, the balance fell on the side of creativity and commercially the adverts proved a success (despite the adverse ASA adjudication). For News UK, its advert was delivered to its subscribers, its subscribers viewed the advert and the desired impact was achieved. In Paddy Power’s case, its Oscar Pistorius advert has attracted widespread coverage and has been reported on across the news and the internet.

The problem is a complicated one for the ASA. It exists to regulate advertisements, yet, due to the limited powers afforded to it, rather than deter the production of CAP Code infringing articles, it is receiving more complaints each year and is often inadvertently promoting infringing adverts. Until the ASA is delegated the authority to impose real restrictions or fines on companies found to be in breach of the CAP Code, it will continue to see record-breaking years in terms of complaints received, and companies will continue to test the boundaries of the CAP Code.