The most complained-about ads of 2015… what do they teach us?

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) today released its list of the most complained-about videos on TV screens and billboards across the country. While we may be a lot less wound-up by marketing tactics than we were, say, 20 years ago, a quick look at the adverts that made the shortlist are far from surprising. So, without further ado, what does the list show us?

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Not many will argue with number one (even though the ASA rightly ignored complaints)

The combination of the Pussycat Dolls, half-crossdressing and the vulcanised rubber-esque face of Sharon Osbourne is enough to challenge the values of even the most liberal viewer. MoneySupermarket.com definitely managed to remind people of its brand, but also gave us the enduring “popularity” of the #epicstrut bloke that culminated in countless embarrassing TV moments, such as this one on This Morning.

Sure, the advert worked, and it wasn’t deemed offensive or misrepresentative – just really, really annoying. And that’s quite the theme in this list: just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s worth complaining about to the ASA. The S is for Standards.

Only one of the ad complaints was actually upheld

You might think it’s because the ASA has a sense of humour, but it’s about representation of a product. That product, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a weight loss supplement. Omega Pharma (which sounds like an evil corporation in Total Recall) portrayed two women exchanging texts that compared their gradually slimming bodies ahead of a holiday.

The ASA deemed it “an irresponsible approach to body image and confidence”, which must have come as a huge surprise to Omega Pharma, which seemed to think that playing a game of weight loss Top Trumps would be a positive message for women worried about the way they look on holiday, when they’re meant to be, you know, enjoying themselves.

Some people don’t like clever plays on words

Booking.com managed to get into the top ten no fewer than three times, and all with the same “Booking” play on words. Though the company got fewer combined complaints than the #epicstrut did in its relatively intolerable 30-second run, the travel expert proved that it royally peeved a lot of pre-watershed viewers, especially those with kids. Luckily, the ASA took it in good humour. We eagerly await similar attempts by Cambridge’s punting tour operators in the near future.

If it could kill you, you could be onto a winner

The British Heart Foundation and the Department of Health ran the hardest-hitting adverts on the list, respectively portraying the loss of a father to a heart attack and a man smoking a fleshy, tumour-laden cigarette. Yet the ASA was keen to underline that distress, too, is an emotion – and both organisations have a vested interest in putting a stop to it.

 Ultimately, it’s the words of Guy Parker, the ASA chief executive, that are worth remembering if you’re in the business of making ads – a point we ourselves make throughout the above. He came across as keen to get away from the idea of people discussing whether or not ads “are or aren’t offensive”, because “there are important issues at stake here”.

He continued: “Advertisers must take care not to cause serious or widespread offence, but we don’t play a numbers game. And while matters of offence can grab the headlines, the bulk of our work is the less glamorous task of tackling misleading advertising. That’s why we’re taking a more proactive approach to address the issues which affect consumers the most before complaints need to be made.”

So, what can we learn? Well, our take is this:

  • Don’t be afraid to be funny (but get it right);
  • There’s more to making waves with an advert than just visuals – Booking.com got in three times with just one joke, so having a great script is key;
  • Hard-hitting is good, so long as it’s for a decent reason;
  • Whatever you do, try to avoid criticising body image. You may have a good product, but remember that beauty is more than how someone looks; and
  • Some people will complain about anything. If you’re on message, you’ve got a well-produced advert and it makes a point, it doesn’t matter how angry some people get. Given nine of the top ten were justified in the eyes of the ASA, it may even be a good thing that people remember it for the wrong reasons – if you’re clever, you can make them the right reasons.

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