As the nights draw in we look forward to the various traditions that brighten up the autumn; whether it's Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night or both, rest assured there will be bonfires and fireworks aplenty throughout the Isles. Advertisers will of course wish to take part in the seasonal theme but should be mindful of the Advertising Codes if they want to avoid their campaigns going up in smoke.

When creating potentially scary or frightening content care should be taken to consider where the ad will appear and whether the imagery is appropriate for the audience. Ads that are designed to make people jump may not be appropriate in a medium where some of the people seeing them will be young children.

The ASA upheld complaints against a digital panel poster in the London Underground for the 'Bloody Mary: Killer Queen' attraction at the London Dungeon. In this case the ad started with a still portrait of Queen Mary the first of England. Suddenly and quickly she turned to face the viewer and ‘morphed’ into a zombie, complete with bloody gashes, white flesh, rotting teeth and red eyes. She then resumed her original passive position and her face returned to normal. The ASA ruled that the ad seemed to be setting out to scare and had overstepped the limit of acceptability in doing so because, although not frightening for adults, the image was likely to be shocking to young children and to cause them fear or distress without good reason.

In autumn 2011 a significant number of complaints were received regarding a series of Phones 4 U TV ads which featured a woman walking through an underground car park as a ghost-like little girl appeared and disappeared in the background. Although the ASA noted that the girl’s appearance was reminiscent of a horror movie and the ads were broadcast in between other ads, which might create a sense of unease, it considered that the copy was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence to adults. The ASA ruled that the scheduling restriction applied had been appropriate and that the ads had been responsibly scheduled to minimise the risk of children seeing them. A complaint against the VOD ad from the campaign was not upheld on the basis that a timing restriction had been applied and the programme in question carried a ‘parental guidance flag’, the ASA found that the measures applied were responsible and appropriate to minimise the risk of children seeing the ad. As well as the importance of appropriate targeting with these ads, it is worth noting that the use of humour to dissipate any unease which may have built up was taken into account.

If you’re considering safety campaigns featuring fireworks or bonfires, an appeal to fear to encourage prudent behaviour may be considered justifiable, however the fear likely to be aroused should not be excessive. As always with these types of ads, care needs to be taken, that when seeking to encourage safe behaviour, the copy does not encourage dangerous behaviour by inadvertently glamourising it.

As the Advertising Codes prevent children being shown in hazardous situations or behaving dangerously, except to promote safety, advertisers must avoid showing or appearing to show children in dangerous situations when depicting festivities. If children are featured taking part in traditional activities such as dookin’ or bobbing for apples an adult should be present. Some activities are unlikely ever to be considered acceptable, for example an ad featuring a child pretending to extinguish a real fire, was found not to depict ‘healthy old fashioned play’ but to imperil children’s safety because the ASA considered that young children who saw it might try to emulate the activity thereby putting themselves at a risk.

Sometimes the visual impact and timing of an ad can render it problematic even when the advertiser has given consideration to its targeting. In October 2011 Levi’s ran into trouble with a magazine ad which showed young people holding exploding fireworks. Although the fireworks were designed to be hand held and the ad featured models who were over 19 rather than children, the ASA ruled that the main image, especially combined with lines such as ‘your legacy is yours to make’, was likely to appeal to the young as an act of bravado. Because the ad showed the harmful practice of holding lit fireworks, which given the potential for easy emulation especially at a time of the year traditionally associated with fireworks, it was found to condone and encourage an unsafe practice. As a general point, the fact that models are over the age of 18 is not necessarily going to avoid the issue of appeal to children because certain actions of older teenagers are inevitably likely to appeal to those under 16.

More on

  • Keep up to date

    Sign up to our rulings and newsletters. Register now