**WARNING: This post quotes the Advertising Standards Authority using actual, hard-core swear words... again! No advertisers swore in the making of this post** 

The ASA has banned a series of billboard ads for Tesco Mobile that substituted swear words for innocuous produce. They used the phrases “What a load of shiitake”, "They’re taking the pistachio” and “For fettuccine’s sake”.

Admittedly these were untargeted ads, and in fairness some were animated, so the inoffensive words were partially obscured for a few seconds for dramatic effect, but surely that doesn't make them as offensive as actual swearwords? 

This calls to mind two billboard adverts for BrewDog from 2019 and 2020, though they were rather less subtle. In those BrewDog ads, BrewDog had obscured the offensive word (“F--k You CO2") in one case, and cut-off the word in the other (i.e. “SOBER AS A MOTHER FU”). 

The ASA also took action in 2019 against a billboard advert for the TV show called The End of the F***ing World, which is difficult to promote if they can't even refer to it with asterisks! In that case, the poster appeared for just one day and triggered a single complaint, but the ASA upheld the complaint in that case, too. 

Interestingly, in the ASA's published rulings against BrewDog, which are still available on its untargeted and non-age restricted website, the ASA went to great lengths to use the actual swearwords multiple times, including using "mother f*cker" three times in a single ruling. Tut tut.

Admittedly, I can understand the ASA's approach towards those ads for BrewDog and The End of the F***ing World, given that there was no subtlety and very little room for interpretation there.

However, it doesn't mean the Tesco ads should be tarred with the same brush.

In fact, back in 2015, in an ad for Booking.com that made repeated reference to "You've done it, you've only gone and Booking done it!" the ASA said the repeated references to “booking”, which appeared to be light hearted substitutes for “f*cking”, were relevant to the advertiser name and its URL. The use of “booking” was therefore in context and given that the ad did not actually use explicit language, it was deemed ok. Similarly, the ASA's own guidance on the use of strong language gives the following guidance on this issue: "A Burger King (2010) campaign, [that] attracted complaints from people who believed the references such as “KING TASTY” and “KING GREAT” alluded to a swear word but the ASA cleared it on similar grounds." 

But fast forward 7 years, and the ASA appears to have lost its Booking sense of humour altogether...

Oh, sugar!

The ASA's approach towards the Tesco ads is baffling. I appreciate the untargeted nature of the ads, but given the ASA’s proclivity for repeatedly using the harshest of swearwords in their rulings, which the advertisers had been careful to avoid, it seems a touch hypocritical, not to mention overzealous, to censure and censor these ads. More importantly, I am concerned that the ASA seems to be 'relishing' its role as moral guardian for the nation by banning these frankly light hearted and amusing Tesco ads. 

These latest ads do no more than many families up and down the country do, i.e. replace real and actually offensive swear words with innocuous alternatives. A common refrain when parents catch themselves about to swear in the presence of children might be "Oh, sugar" or “Fudge!” for example, but the ASA is lowering the bar still further by banning ads that use phrases like “Taking the pistachio”, claiming they reach the threshold of “causing serious or widespread harm or offence” and therefore breach the CAP Code. 

Mind your Peas and Quinoa

It is incredibly difficult to challenge these kinds of rulings via the Independent Review mechanism, so they will probably stand, but I do despair at the ASA’s descent into hypersensitivity. 

Perhaps a broader discussion needs to be had about what 'serious or widespread offence' really means, and where the bar should be set before the regulator can censor and censure ads under that rule.  

Despite the fact that 52 people complained, in the current social media age, and when certain newspapers and online forums can whip people into a frenzy over absolutely nothing of any consequence, it's harder and harder to take the number of complaints as a useful gauge.

And I very much hope the 52 people who bothered to write to the ASA to complain about these ads don't read the ASA's ruling, because they have no one to complain to about the harsh language used by the ASA!

F*ct check: Do as I sage, not as a dough.

Even after the advertiser had gone to great lengths not to use actual swear words in their ads, it falls to me to point out yet again that in their ruling against Tesco the ASA used the word:

  • “fuck” five times,
  • “shit” seven times, and
  • “piss” six times. 

Clearly, someone is taking the pistachio!!

The full ruling can be found here - reader discretion is advised!