On 15th November, the ASA upheld 7 complaints against a Royal Mail video advert on Twitter and Video On Demand (VOD) entitled ‘Heist’, judging that the presentation of the content “was excessively threatening and distressing”. 

In the course of the video a busy bank is invaded by armed robbers who, rather than demand the customary access to the safe, want to capture the data of the staff and customers. Recent figures suggest that there were nearly 100,000 cases of identity theft in the first six-months of 2017 alone, so Royal Mail’s overall aim to alert customers to the seriousness of ID theft is welcome and important.

However, the ASA criticised Royal Mail for using a scenario and narrative which did not make it clear to consumers how they could protect themselves. Meanwhile, Royal Mail was further slammed for the potentially threatening and distressing nature of the content which complainants feared could have been seen by children.

There are two key regulatory issues to consider here.

Firstly, there is the issue scheduling. Generally speaking, the ASA have taken a pragmatic approach where complaints have centred on ‘shock’ ads, or advertisements for vice products which run the risk of being seen by children. For instance, Channel 4 were deemed not have breached guidelines regarding an advert for a whiskey brand which was shown in a morning TV slot as the broadcaster could clearly show the audience demographic was over 18. The VOD ad appeared on the ITV Player on in August at approximately 9.00 pm during an episode of Coronation Street, i.e. after the watershed and around a show which is no stranger to depictions of domestic violence. 

Secondly, there is the issue of using ‘shock’ tactics ads more generally. The ASA themselves recognise that, “the use of ‘shock tactics’ is nothing new and it can be a highly effective way of getting a message across.” The Royal Mail had taken advice about the content, as well as the scheduling, from both Clearcast and CAP Copy Advice, but unfortunately, the ASA Council still concluded that "the ad was likely to cause fear and distress to viewers, in particular to victims of violence, without a justifiable reason." 

Famously, a Barnardo's ad which showed graphic scenes of physical and substance abuse, was cleared despite receiving around 500 complaints as it clearly raised awareness of the deep-seated problems portrayed. The ASA launched a thorough investigation of the use of these sorts of methods by charity, non-profit, government and other third sector organisations who often use provocative campaigns, and found that while everyone has to follow the rules, these sorts of advertisers are likely to get a degree of consumer leeway and that there is scope to ‘shock’ in the right time and place.

There is a careful balancing act here for ‘shock’ ads that risk crossing the mark. For some brands and advertisers, the negativity attached to occasional offensive advertising will be short lived, and may in practice further help raise awareness. But regular condemnation on certain issues, particularly involving sexualisation of children or violence to women, will have deeper adverse consequences.

For Royal Mail, who themselves have been criticised for lax data and customer security practices, and indeed for most other organisations, any ‘shock’ tactics need to be clearly justified, and backed up by clear data regarding aim and audience.

To my mind, the ad is undoubtedly shocking and distressing. However, given the media selection and the serious issue being raised, reasonable people could certainly side with Clearcast and CAP Copy Advice, concluding that on this occasion, the ends justify the means.