Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.
Religion is potentially an extremely sensitive subject. References to religion in marketing communications, even humorous ones, have the capacity to cause serious offence. Marketers should ensure that they consider carefully the tone used and, if necessary, research the likelihood of marketing communications causing serious or widespread offence to followers of the faiths concerned.
• Gentle humour may be acceptable when reflecting mainstream culture
• Be cautious when using religious imagery or language
• Misleading claims can also cause offence
• Take the sensitivities of differing religions into account
• Read the Advertising Guidance for further advice
Most of the ASA’s past decisions on religious offence relate to references to Christianity (a relatively small number concern other religions). Those decisions tend to treat Christianity as more robust and more able to withstand humorous references without causing serious or widespread offence, reflecting society showing more latitude towards references to Christianity because its language and symbols have passed into mainstream culture.
It is quite common for the ASA to receive complaints about Christian imagery in and around Christmas, Easter etc. For example, in 2014 the ASA received complaints that a Christmas themed ad referring to "all our stupid songs" was likely to cause offence because it mocked carol singing, an element of Christian worship. The ASA did not uphold the complaints, noting that the activity was part of British Christmas tradition, followed by both Christians and non-Christians alike (Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain) Ltd, 5 March 2014). Similarly the ASA chose not to uphold complaints about fashion ads that showed a man giving a woman a Mulberry handbag as a gift in scenes reminiscent of the Christmas Nativity story. It considered most viewers would understand it as a light hearted take on the Nativity story, intended to poke fun at the effect of consumerism on Christmas rather than mocking or denigrating Christian belief (Mulberry Company (Sales) Ltd, 23 December 2015).
The use of religious imagery or language may be considered acceptable, provided it is not mocking or disrespectful. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has been used in several ads and, although it has received complaints, the ASA rarely upholds them. An exception occurred in 2006, when the ASA considered that changing The Last Supper to show Jesus in a casino and his apostles playing roulette was likely to offend (Paddy Power, 11 January 2006). Using religious imagery to advertise products or themes contrary to central or sensitive Christian beliefs is likely to be problematic. Another good example of inappropriate usage was an ad, placed in the run up to Christmas, for the morning-after pill. It was headlined “Immaculate Contraception?” and generated over 180 complaints by mis-using a fundamental Catholic belief (Schering Health Care Ltd, 22 December 2004).
In 2006, the ASA considered complaints about a Gay Police Association national press ad that highlighted an increase in homophobic incidents, where the sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator; the ad was headlined "in the name of the father" and showed a photograph of a Bible next to a pool of blood. Over 550 complainants believed the ad implied that Christians were the perpetrators of the reported incidents. The ASA agreed the ad was likely to offend Christian readers (Gay Police Association, 18 October 2006).
References to non-Christian religions can be more likely to cause serious or widespread offence, either because of a lack of understanding of what might offend their followers or because non-Christian faiths are less established in the UK and might need to be treated with more sensitivity (Le Redoute (UK) Ltd, 4 August 2004).
• The sacred: aspects of religion that are so sacred their depiction is likely to break the Code;
• Christianity and common culture: tolerance that extends to the use of Christian images and words;
• Non-Christian faiths: the need for greater sensitivity towards minority faiths;
• Language: ecclesiastical language and what might or might not offend;
• Sex and Religion: the use of sexualised images;
• Location, context, timing and media: where and when to avoid advertising, for example posters showing nudity close to places of worship;
• Relevance of product;
• Humour: whether humour gets round offence and
• Cause-related advertising: is it acceptable for charities and the like to use religious images to generate interest?