OMG, OMFG, WTF!?, COOL AF – offensive and inappropriate or effing cool taglines? This is a question that was recently considered by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa in Typo Stationery / Kathrine Marsden & Another / 2018-809F.

Popular stationery store, Typo, advertised a sparkle ball point pen. The advertisement consisted of an image of the pen, a bubble with the acronym OMFG (where the F stands for the F word) and an image of a model holding her cheeks seemingly astonished by the offer. The advertisement was circulated in an email that was sent to Typo customers.

A consumer filed a compliant with the ASA arguing that the advertisement was contrary to the Advertising Practice Code (“the ASA Code”) in that it was highly offensive and insensitive towards children.

Clause 1 of Section II – Offence

The ASA had to consider the advertisement in terms of Clause 1 of Section II of the Code which provides that advertisements should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious, wide-spread or sectoral offence. The Clause provides that the fact that an advertisement may be offensive to some is not in itself sufficient grounds for upholding an objection to the advertisement. In considering whether an advertisement is offensive, consideration will be given to the context, medium, likely audience, the nature of the product or service, prevailing standards, degree of social concern, and public interest.

The ASA looked at a series of cases in which it had considered whether the acronym OMG and the word “effing” were considered offensive. In Department of Social Development/E Cillie/17620, the Directorate held that whilst the complainant had a personal view on the acronym OMG, it does not believe that the use of OMG is likely to cause serious, widespread or sectoral offence, especially since the term has become widely used in the media.

In Webafrica / Fibre Internet / Timothy Wege & Another / 2018 – 7354F, the ASA held that the word “effing” is not per se offensive, is commonly used and other phrases or acronyms such as “WTF” are also in common use. Considering the widespread use of the word effing and that it was used in a way intended to be humorous, the hypothetical reasonable adult would not be offended by the use of the word “effing”.

In the present case, the ASA accepted that OMFG, where the F stands for the F word, was arguably more offensive than the acronym OMG, particularly to religious people. However, the ASA, by a slim majority held that OMFG was similar to the use of “effing” or OMG and, therefore, would not be offensive to adults.

Clause 14 of Section II – Children

The ASA also had to consider the advertisement in terms of Clause 14 of Section II, which provides that advertisements addressed to or likely to influence children should not contain any statement or visual presentation which might result in harming them mentally, morally, physically or emotionally.

The ASA, again, considered previous decisions. In particular, Dial A Nerd // AA Milford / 15791, which involved a radio advertisement where the F word had been bleeped out. The ASA held that the use of the F word in the commercial, although censored, is still not desirable when young and easily impressionable children are listening to the radio.

In Webafrica Fibre Internet / Timothy Wedge & Another / 2018-7354F, the advertisements under review was a billboard which contained the phrase “Effing Fast Internet” situated on school grounds and a radio advertisement where the word “Effing” had been bleeped out. The ASA enquired whether a child imitating the commercial and using the word “effing” would be acceptable and concluded that it would not. The ASA held that it was highly unlikely that a child would not understand the meaning of “effing” as used in the context of the advertisements. The ASA noted that it is required to err on the side of caution in matters involving children.

In the Typo case, it was the placement of the advertisement which resulted in the ASA finding that the use of OMFG in the advertisement was not harmful to children. Whilst the ASA accepted that the product, a sparkle pen, would be attractive to children, the advertisement was circulated via email to Typo customers only. Typo customers were identified as aged 18 – 35. The ASA held that a child who could be harmed by inappropriate language should not have unchecked access to emails.

Therefore, whilst the ASA has adopted quite a liberal approach in holding that advertisements containing commonly used phrases alluding to the F word are not offensive to adults, the same principles do not apply to advertisements that are accessible to children. It is likely that if the phrases, OMFG, WTF, EFFING, AF are included in advertisements that are easily accessible by children, whether on radio, in print media, billboards or point of sale material, such advertisements, whilst effing cool, will most likely be found to contravene the provisions relating to children in the ASA Code.