The Ad Police Release The Top Ten Most Complained About Ads in 2017

February. A favourite month of advertisers for one reason: The ASA releases its’ top ten most complained about adverts for the previous year. Who doesn’t love to see which brands made the shortlist and why?

But for those who don’t work in the industry – what is the ASA? What does it do? And what were last years’ most complained about adverts?

Woop woop – it’s the sound of the advertising police!

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all forms of media. The ASA’s job it to make sure that all adverts adhere to the advertising codes written by the Committee of Advertising Practice – also known as the CAP codes. You can find out more about the CAP codes on their website. Forewarning – they are long and detailed so not for the faint-hearted.

Ever seen an advert that just doesn’t sit right with you? You can lodge a complaint with the ASA who will review the evidence, decide if an investigation is needed and decide if the advert should be edited, removed or left alone.

2017 – an offensive year

The adverts that made it to the top ten on the complaints list in 2017 are incredibly varied. They range from TV ads to print and social media, with a variety of different people, products and situations. This year however, they all made the top ten because they were considered to be offensive in one way or another. Which is quite interesting as this sort of complaint isn’t what the ASA deals with in the majority of cases. In fact, 73% of cases passed to the ASA deal with adverts that are considered to be misleading. Funnily enough – the top ten most complained about ads only total 2,821 complaints. I’d say that’s a job well done for the ASA.

The Complaint Countdown

Now that we’ve got a slightly better idea of what the ASA does, lets get to the fun bit – 2017’s most complained about adverts.

10 – Maltesers – Look on the Light Side

I’ve talked about this advert in a previous blog because it has been praised as part of the brand’s diversity strategy. It features a woman in a wheelchair describing a having a spasm during a romantic encounter. Despite it’s post-9pm scheduling restriction, this ad made it on to the top 10 list for a second year with 92 complaints that it was offensive and overly sexual.

9 – Macmillan Cancer Support

This ad features a father reading his daughter a bedtime story and very quickly flashes through different scenes of his life with cancer. These include sitting slumped in a bath, throwing up in a sink, crying in his car etc. It was pretty harrowing. It was also a great awareness-raising ad of what living with cancer is REALLY like. With 116 complaints centred around the graphic and distressing nature of the ad, this slides into 9th place somewhat unfairly.

8 – O2

O2’s ad for free screen replacements received 125 complaints that the ad was sexually explicit, inappropriate for children and offensive to religious beliefs. What did the ad feature? A same-sex couple breaking a phone during a short kiss. Needless to say the complaints were not upheld because no, no and no.

7 – Curry’s PC World

The children in the family are tricked into thinking they’re going to spend Christmas sitting by the fire, carol singing and having long conversations with their family members. Doesn’t sound like an enticing Christmas for a kid right? No worries though – their actually getting to test a new (and pretty awesome looking) TV over the Christmas period. 131 complaints were received highlighting the ad as offensive because of the promotion of materialism and relating Christmas with TV over Christianity. Another one that was not upheld as no ridicule of any religion featured in the ad

6 – V.I Poo

I’ll admit, I cringed a bit at this advert. Not because of the V.I. Poo air freshener for your bathroom but just at the cheesiness of the whole thing. With 207 complaints, it’s clear the UK just isn’t into toilet humour.

5 – McDonald’s

Also known as the dead Dad advert. A young boy is reminded of the similarities between him and his deceased father over a McDonald’s burger. It was a bit close to the bone. 256 complaints were submitted criticising the fast food brand for trivialising grief and using such a powerful emotion and distressing life event to promote their goods.

4 –

Another ad that’s made the list for a second time. The ad features a same-sex couple sharing a passionate kiss. Sound similar to the O2 advert further up the list? The 293 complaints focused on the same thing – that the ad was too sexually explicit. The ASA ruled that the advert was fine with the same attitude it had towards the O2 advert – no.

3 – Dove – Breastfeeding campaign

The first print and social media advert to hit the list. Dove’s ads featured stats relating to public opinions on breastfeeding. 391 complaints stated the featured messaging used language that could encourage people to critise breastfeeding and encourage people to neglect a crying child. Some when as far to say the brand was supporting and encouraging child abuse. The ASA didn’t need to step in on this one as Dove pulled the ads and made a public apology for any offence and concern caused.

2 –

This is the third ad to appear in the top ten list 2 years in a row. We all know the advert. The strutters and the builders face off with some pretty impressive dance moves and a new female character is introduced. 455 complaints were submitted against the ad with the majority complaining the ad was homophobic and overly sexual. The ASA declared the ads fine because the characters were dancing, not doing anything sexually explicit.

1 – KFC – The Whole Chicken

The king of modern-day offensive advertising it seems! The same company who brought us one of the most complained about adverts of all time, now brings us ‘The Whole Chicken” Ad. With 755 complaints, this one takes the top spot. The ad features a chicken dancing with a sassy attitude to DMS’s ‘X Gon’ Give It to Ya’ as it heads to the slaughter house. The ASA received complaints that the ad was distressing for vegetarians and vegans, upsetting for children and disrespectful to chickens. Personally, this was one of my favourite ads of the year. Now it took me a while to realise the chicken was heading to slaughter, and it didn’t make me want to buy anything from KFC. But it was memorable and I loved the sassy chicken.

Offense is a very subjective thing and everyone has their own limits to what they find acceptable. There are industries and topics that need to be monitored more heavily and action does sometimes have to be taken. That’s why the ASA exists. And it’s why Elastic always adheres to CAP codes whenever we’re involved in advertising campaigns. If you would like to find out how you could propel your brand to the next level with a great advertising campaign, be that social media, print or building a brand from scratch, get in touch.


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