A Scientology advertisement unusually attracted some attention on Twitter last week from some viewers who were surprised to see such an ad on tv. I say unusually because the Church of Scientology has been advertising on television on and off for many years now, certainly since rules allowing religions to advertise were first introduced in the late 1980s.
So perhaps now is a good moment to canter through the Religious advertising part of the BCAP Code, which is written by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice and is the code against which we check ads before approving them for broadcast.
Religions wishing to advertise must comply with the rules set out in the BCAP Code. These rules cover for instance the requirement that advertisements must identify the advertiser and the faith if it is not obvious from the treatment. Also, no television advertisement may expound doctrines or beliefs unless they are broadcast on channels whose editorial content is wholly or mainly concerned with matters of religion.
Other rules within the religious section of the code do not allow for religions to refer to any alleged consequences of a faith or a lack of a faith, nor may advertisements denigrate the beliefs of others.
Also, religious advertisers may not appeal for funds except for charitable purposes. Moreover such advertisements seeking donations may not imply that respondents will receive spiritual benefits in return for a donation.
As BCAP says in an introduction to this section of the code, “These rules seek to strike a balance between freedom of speech and the prevention of advertising that could be harmful.” Each ad is checked very carefully by our copy clearance team and in the case of the recent Scientology ad, we had no concerns that it was breaking BCAP’s rules.
The ASA have subsequently said that it had carefully considered viewer complaints but decided there were no grounds for further action.
The watchdog said it did understand that some viewers might find the ad in poor taste because they disapproved of the beliefs and practices of Scientologists and because they believed religious ads should not be broadcast on TV.
But they added: “The Advertising Code does not prohibit ads for religious organisations from being broadcast on channels [such as ITV].
“The ad itself did not contain either explicit statements of belief or incitements for viewers to change their own beliefs, and only included the advertisers’ website address, and so was unlikely to breach the Code for these reasons.”
By Peter Johnson, Copy Group Manager at Clearcast