The recent decision by Digital Cinema Media (DCM) not to show a Church of England ad featuring the Lord’s prayer has provoked a flurry of media attention and turned the spotlight on religious advertising. In the lead up to Christmas we look at the ASA’s position on this topic and offer some advice on keeping your ads in line with the Code.

The Code states that “Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of…religion” (Rule 4.1). It is potentially an extremely sensitive subject, so marketers should ensure that they carefully consider both the content and tone used.

Promoting a religion in a way that does not criticise or offend others is unlikely to be problematic. A humanist ad that stated “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” was not investigated by the ASA because it noted that the tone of the ad was upbeat rather than hostile and it did not exhort those who saw it to take action that would impinge on the beliefs, freedoms or rights of others. In the same vein the ASA didn’t investigate complaints about a Christian ad that stated “There IS a God, BELIEVE.”

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. For example, 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.

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. However using religious content in a context at odds with commonly held beliefs for that faith is likely to be problematic. For example, in 2014 the ASA upheld complaints about two ads (Ladbrokes, Sporting Index) and that connected an image of Christ the Redeemer to gambling.

If in doubt, drop CAP Copy Advice a line so they can help you keep your ads responsible.

By Laura Kelly, Copy Advice Executive

Laura specialises in giving advice relating to employment and business opportunities, religion, psychics and spiritualists and financial advertising as well as issues of harm and offence.

Meet the rest of the Copy Advice team here.

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