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Staying socially responsible in advertsing whilst staying socially distanced in life

23 April 2020
Business colleagues in glass room
We are all at home, shops are largely closed and advertising is minimal. We've taken a look at the ASA's position on social responsibility and considered what can be shown in ads in light of social distancing and the regulations placed around shopping.

What is socially irresponsible advertising in lockdown?

In this changing world, we are all at home, shops are largely closed and advertising is minimal. New consideration must be given to what we can show in ads with regards to social distancing and the regulations placed around shopping. We have seen an increase in complaints about advertising for reasons that would never be an issue in usual circumstances. Does that mean that showing people enjoying life outside, a summer BBQ or similar, which once would have been an attractive backdrop, now may be socially irresponsible and a breach of the Ad Codes? In this article, we take a look at the ASA's position on the social responsibility rule and how it is approaching this in the context of COVID-19.

The ASA's position on social responsibility

The ASA has implemented a fast track reporting system for raising concerns about ads that make "misleading, harmful or irresponsible claims around the current 'COVID-19' situation".

As well as sector specific rules around advertising responsibly, both Ad Codes require that ads be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. In addition, the Broadcast Code bars the inclusion of material that is likely to condone or encourage behaviour that prejudices health or safety. 

Previous guidance

CAP: social responsibility >

ASA: gambling ads for vulnerable during lockdown >

How has the ASA approached the issue previously?

The ASA's take on social responsibility is varied. There are a wide range of upheld rulings that fall into the category of ads that we'd all agree are problematic. For example, ads which trivialised domestic violence, sexualised children, or inappropriately targeted 12+ age rated apps with explicit ads for dating services.
There are also an equally large group of ads where the ASA's take on social responsibility takes a much less obvious turn, for example: 

  • It ruled against a tweet from a restaurant saying it was continuing to sell milkshakes when a competitor had stopped was socially irresponsible because in the specific context of events in Scotland at that time, it would be understood to be encouraging the public to throw milkshakes at political figures. 
  • An ad for chewing gum breached the rules because by showing someone chewing gum whilst playing sport it was found to condone an unsafe practice (because of the risk of choking). 
  • A TV ad depicting holidaymakers jumping from a rock into deep waters, which was part of a swimming complex for tourists, was held to breach the rule against condoning or encouraging a dangerous practice because the ASA considered it could potentially encourage tombstoning. 

So how does advertising remain responsible within the context of the restrictions of movement?

Currently, regulations are in force across the UK that prohibit us from leaving home without a reasonable excuse. It should go without saying that ads should not explicitly encourage people to 'break lockdown', but it is worth ensuring that ads don't accidentally feature an indirect encouragement. Ads which would have been perfectly innocuous in 2019 may now be considered to condone unsafe behaviour, for example: 

  • An ad showing friends enjoying a sunny weather: Our clients have seen complaints in this space – it must be made clear in these instances that those depicted aren't breaking social distancing rules, for example by making light of the fact they are stuck at home together, rather than coming together as a group. 
  • Ads showing events that are outside the home: Of themselves, there is nothing to say that they cannot be advertised, but you may wish to consider supers/small print or VO to make clear that this is for after the lockdown. 
  • Ads for products that are for use outside the home or that do not fit into the categories of essential products: There is an argument that by advertising and inviting customers to visit your stores to acquire them would be encouraging them to take a non-essential trip. That risk can be mitigated to an extent by showing essential items are included in ads which refer to in store and non-essential items being also available online and not in store only.  

This situation will be trickier as the lockdown restrictions ease and stores will no doubt seek to go into promotional mode to encourage people to visit. 

In all of these cases, we hope that the ASA will take a pragmatic approach, but we are likely to see more complaints as consumers are stuck at home with ready access to the ASA complaints form. Our contacts at the ASA have indicated that the ASA would be unlikely to rule against ads for products that can be legally sold in the UK simply on the basis that they are for use outside the home. 

The police guidance can be helpful here as it gives examples of reasonable excuses to leave the house. For example, leaving the house to buy tools to undertake repairs is listed as reasonable; leaving to get decorating supplies is not. As well as indicating that leaving the house to buy a small amount of an essential food is as valid as doing the weekly shop, the guidance notes that collecting surplus basic food items from a friend is likely to be reasonable. All of these scenarios broaden the horizons of what advertisers can depict within advertising.

If you think this is being over cautious, remember the ASA has previously found a Police Force to have been socially irresponsible in its advertising and once upheld complaints against a light-hearted ad depicting a child removing the salad from their burger on the ground of encouraging poor nutritional habits. So, as the lockdown continues and summer (hopefully) arrives, ASA complaints of this nature can be avoided. 

If you have any concerns or would like to discuss your advertising strategy, please contact one of our experts.

Read more insights on our global COVID-19 hub 


Further Reading