There have been a number of ads in recent months that have included what is best described as ‘swearword play’. A Booking.com ad was recently investigated by the ASA in response to a large number of complaints that they had used the word ‘booking’ as a substitute for a vaguely similar sounding swearword, and that this was offensive and likely to encourage children to swear.
Here is a sample of the copy: ‘It doesn’t get any booking better than this. Look at the view, look at the booking view. This is exactly what you booking need.’
Clearly the use of the word ‘booking’ could be construed as a replacement for a certain expletive, but when we decided to approve the ad we considered that that serious or widespread offence was unlikely. If the substitute word had sounded more like the expletive so as to make the substitution more obvious then we might have had a tougher decision to make. This was the problem for The Sofa King who came unstuck when a complaint against their 2011 press ad was upheld by the ASA. The offending phrase in this case was, ‘Where the prices are Sofa King low’.
We felt that the swearword play in the booking.com ad was oblique enough not to be gratuitous and we felt it was being used in an entirely appropriate context. The ad is about booking a holiday and the repetition of the word ‘booking’ is intended to reinforce the advertiser’s brand. Moreover, the word is always enunciated clearly in the voice over so that there can be no confusion over what is being said.
Fortunately the ASA made the same assessment of the ad as we did and chose not to uphold the complaints. Clearly there is a fine line between what is acceptable swearword play and what is unacceptably offensive. The advice from us would be to keep the copy sufficiently distinct so as not to be generally confused with the swearword, this way your ad is unlikely to cause offence and unlikely to be recognised as a reference to a swearword by children. Children are very well protected by advertising regulation so if there is a possibility that an ad will encourage children to swear then we will apply a scheduling restriction. Since there wasn’t any swearing in the booking.com ad and because the swearword play was oblique we did not apply a restriction, and on this point the ASA also agreed with our decision.
Seb Lynch, Copy Development Manager at Clearcast.
Update 8th April 2015: On another ruling, for Bedworld, the ASA decided that the reference in an ad to “ship this bed” may be confused by younger viewers with a swear word. We hadn’t put a scheduling restriction on that ad because we had felt the reference made sense in the context, however the ASA took a different view and felt an “ex kids” timing restriction should have been applied. As a result of the ASA’s decision, the ad will now not appear in or around children’s programming and we are likely to apply this restriction to other ads in a similar vein.