KFC’s ‘Dancing Chicken’ ad – featuring a chicken dancing to rap music — was the ad which generated the most consumer complaints in 2017, according to the Advertising Standards Authority’s Top 10 ranking of the year’s most complained about ads.
The KFC commercial triggered 755 complaints, mainly on the grounds that it was disrespectful to chickens and distressing for vegetarians, vegans and children, since it depicted a chicken who was heading for slaughter. The ASA ruled it was unlikely that the ad would cause distress or serious or widespread offence, as there were in fact no explicit references to animal slaughter.
In total, the ASA received 29,997 complaints during 2017. All the ads on 2017’s Top 10 list had one common thread – they were all challenged on the grounds of offence. The ASA points out that while the reason why most ads get complained about is that they are misleading – the issue in 73% of cases in 2017 — but misleading cases are much less likely to attract multiple complaints.
ASA Chief Executive Guy Parker says: “Tackling misleading ads continues to be the bread and butter of our work, but 2017 again showed that it is ads that have the potential to offend that attract the highest numbers of complaints. But multiple complaints don’t necessarily mean that an ad has fallen on the wrong side of the line: we look carefully at the audience, the context and prevailing societal standards informed by public research before we decide.”
The decision as to whether an ad is likely to cause offence is made by the 12 members of the ASA Council, following detailed investigation by ASA staff. The Council acts as a jury to decide whether to uphold complaints against ads on the grounds of causing ‘serious or widespread offence’. When making that judgement, the ASA considers several factors: the audience likely to see the ad, the context in which the ad appears, and prevailing societal standards. The ASA also commissions research into the public’s attitudes to, and understanding of, certain ad themes to help inform the decisions it makes and where the line should be drawn.
While many of 2017’s most complained about ad campaigns were seen across a range of media – for example social media, magazines, and companies’ own websites – television ads triggered the most complaints, demonstrating the continuing effectiveness of the medium at hitting mass audiences.
Two of the ads are from campaigns that also featured in 2016’s Top Ten list, meaning these campaigns have continued to court controversy over two years (Match.com and Maltesers). One of the campaigns has been on the list for three years in a row (Moneysupermarket.com).
In response to complaints reported in the media, two ads were quickly removed by the advertisers (Dove and McDonald’s) without the need for further ASA action. The ASA decided each of the remaining eight ads had not crossed the line on offensiveness, so the complaints were not upheld.
2017’s most complained about ads are:
1 Kentucky Fried Chicken (Great Britain) Ltd
755 Complaints – Not upheld
This year, KFC’s ad, featuring a chicken dancing to a rap soundtrack, received complaints that it was disrespectful to chickens and distressing for vegetarians, vegans and children, since it depicted a chicken who was heading for slaughter. The ASA ruled it was unlikely that the ad would cause distress or serious or widespread offence as there were no explicit references to animal slaughter.
2 Moneysupermarket.com Ltd
455 Complaints – Not upheld
This Moneysupermarket.com ad campaign also featured in the ASA’s Top Ten list for 2015 and 2016. Like many of the ads in the same campaign, 2017’s ad re-featured the two #epicsquads – the strutters and the builders – and a new female character.
Many found the ad to be offensive on the grounds that it was overtly sexual and possibly homophobic. The ASA thought the character’s movements would generally be seen as dance moves and not in a sexual context. It also thought most viewers would recognise the ad’s intended take on humour. It ruled it was unlikely to condone or encourage harmful discriminatory behaviour.
3 Unilever UK Ltd (Dove)
391 Complaints – Not investigated; ads removed
Dove produced a series of ads that contained statistics and opinions about breastfeeding in public. The ads were featured across magazines, social media, and Dove’s own website. Many criticised the language, such as “put them away”, as it might encourage criticism of breastfeeding. Some were also concerned that the ads might encourage neglecting crying babies. After listening to the public, Dove issued an apology and subsequently pulled the ads and amended their website.
4 Match.com International Ltd
293 Complaints – Not upheld
Match.com’s ad, starring a lesbian couple kissing passionately, appears again in our list of most complained about ads. The ASA received similar complaints last year, when it was number three on our list, about whether the ad was too sexually explicit for children to see. It ruled then that the ad did not cross the line. Over the two years, the ad has attracted almost 1,200 complaints.
5 McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd
256 Complaints – Not investigated; ads removed
McDonald’s produced a TV ad featuring a boy and his mother talking about his dead father. From the conversation, the boy became visibly upset as he found few similarities between him and the father that his mother described. Ultimately, he found comfort when she told him that both he and his father loved McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish burger. The ad attracted criticism that it was trivialising grief, was likely to cause distress to those who have experienced a close family death and was distasteful to compare an emotive theme to a fast food promotion. The fast food chain issued an apology and pulled the ads.
6 RB UK Commercial Ltd (V.I.Poo)
207 Complaints – Not upheld
A fictional Hollywood starlet shares her best kept secret on how to maintain good toilet etiquette – by using the V.I.Poo spray, an air freshener. Many people found the discussion of going to the toilet unsavoury. The ASA ruled that the ad was a light-hearted way of introducing the product and didn’t consider its reference to the “devil’s dumplings” likely to break its rules on offence.
7 DSG Retail Ltd (Currys PC World)
131 Complaints – Not upheld
This was a TV ad about spending Christmas in front of the TV. The Currys PC World ad showed a set of parents telling their children that they would like to celebrate Christmas “traditionally” this year by sitting by the fire, signing carols and having long conversations. The mother then laughed at the visibly upset children and explained it was a joke. She led the family to the next room to show them a new Oleg TV that her employer, Currys PC World, had allowed her to bring home and test. Complainants believed the ad was offensive because it promoted materialism and equated Christmas with watching TV instead of Christianity.
The ASA thought the ad was light-hearted and was meant to be humorous. It understood the allusions to consumerism might be perceived to be in bad taste by some, but considered it was unlikely to cause serious offence. The ad did not ridicule or denigrate Christians or Christianity, so was unlikely to offend on those grounds.
8 Telefonica Ltd (O2)
125 Complaints – Not upheld
O2’s ad about free screen replacements stirred complaints when it featured two men kissing and breaking one of the couple’s phone screens when he was pressed onto a table by the other man. Many felt the scene was too sexually explicit and scheduled inappropriately at times when children were likely to be watching. Some also felt the portrayal of a same-sex relationship was offensive to their religious beliefs.
The ASA noted that the scene in question was brief and did not contain any graphic or overly sexual imagery. It ruled that it did not require a scheduling restriction and the depiction of a gay couple would not cause serious or widespread offence,
9 Macmillan Cancer Support
116 Complaints – Not upheld
A TV ad for Macmillan Cancer Support included fast-moving scenes of a father talking to his daughter, receiving chemotherapy, vomiting in a sink, sitting slumped in a bath, and crying in a car before being comforted by a nurse. People complained that the imagery was overly graphic and distressing to viewers. Though the ASA understood some of the scenes, particularly the one in which the man vomited, were distressing to some viewers, it believed they served to illustrate the reality of living with cancer. The storyline of the ad and the service that Macmillan Cancer Support was advertising provided context. The ASA believed it addressed the serious nature of the illness appropriately. Furthermore, scheduling restrictions meant it wouldn’t be shown around children’s programmes.
10 Mars Chocolate UK Ltd (Maltesers)
92 Complaints – Not upheld
And finally, Maltesers appears in ASA’s top 10 list for a second year.
Many continued to find the featured woman, who described having a spasm during a romantic encounter with her boyfriend, to be offensive and overly sexual. Some also felt it was offensive to portray the woman, who was in a wheelchair, in this manner.
The ad had already been given a post-9pm scheduling restriction, which we considered sufficient as most viewers are aware that advertising content after 9pm might include more adult themes. In instances when the ad was seen earlier in the day, the ad was seen around adult-themed programmes, such as Made in Chelsea and The Inbetweeners, and was unlikely to be considered to have been inappropriately scheduled.
The ASA ruling said it found the women’s conversation to be light-hearted and didn’t think the allusion to the woman’s romantic encounter would cause serious or widespread offence. On the matter of portraying the woman in a wheelchair in this manner, it believed the ad was championing diversity and did not think that it denigrated or degraded those with disabilities.
The ASA is the independent regulator of advertisements across all media in the UK. It does so in the public interest and with the co-operation of advertisers, agencies and media owners who are committed to observing the Advertising Codes, otherwise known as the CAP Codes. The CAP Codes are drawn up by the Committee of Advertising Practice.
The Institute of Promotional Marketing, the UK marketing trade body for promotions which owns www.promomarketing.info, is a stakeholder in CAP and an integral part of the UK’s self-regulatory system for advertising and marketing. The IPM promotes the CAP Codes in its world-renowned education and training programmes, and in its annual IPM Awards – any entry which breaks the CAP Codes is disqualified.