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10 of the most controversial adverts ever

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Ashley Madison has seen its fair share of controversy since launching in 2001, not least the recent mass data leak. The dating website marketed to those who are married or in a relationship ran into trouble after hackers leaked the personal information of millions of emails registered to the website, with some UK divorce lawyers already confirming they had been busier than usual.

Before the data disaster however, one of its most controversial moments to date had been the site’s TV ads – one in particular was removed from broadcast in Australia. The aforementioned ad got us thinking about what other notable adverts have become memorable due to controversy. So, here’s a list of ten of the most eyebrow-raising – including some where official complaints were upheld and those where they weren’t.

(1) Ashley Madison – “Other than my wife”

A site that bills itself with the tagline “Life is short, have an affair” is always going to be controversial in what it does, but Ashley Madison decided to really push the boat out with an additional catchy jingle for a TV spot. Australia’s advertising watchdog deemed the advert “demeaning and vilifying of women”, and it caused outrage among viewers before it was pulled.

The advert shows a man flicking through different women on the Ashley Madison site, while singing, “I’m looking for someone other than my wife”. Among the long list of complaints were numerous saying it was “promoting promiscuity in married men”, as well as being “sexist that only men are encouraged to commit adultery in their marriage”. The Ad Standards Board said the swiping element “strongly depicts women as a commodity to be bought and is demeaning and vilifying of women”.

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(2) Paddy Power – Oscar Pistorius “money back if he walks”

As a well-known fan of the shock tactic, Paddy Power is responsible for the most complained about advert to date in the UK, proving print ads can still cause maximum impact. The ad in question racked up 5,525 complaints in 2014.

It seized on the heavy media coverage swarming the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, and mocked up a golden statuette of the athlete saying it’s “Oscar time” and offering money back if he wasn’t charged. There was outrage over various issues – many said it trivialised domestic violence towards women, while others pointed out the advert made fun of double amputee Pistorius’ disability.

The Advertising Standards Authority immediately suspended the ad, saying it brought “advertising into disrepute”.

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(3) National Insurance – Superbowl ad

NBC, which broadcasted this year’s Superbowl, said it had sold 95 per cent of its ad slots at a princely cost of $4.5m. Prices for a slot at the huge sporting event have gone up 75 per cent over a decade, so understandably, brands want to make sure theirs count when they’ve coughed up that amount.

Which Nationwide definitely did – though just in a rather controversial way. Its ad featured a young boy discussing the experiences he’ll never get to have, because as it turns out –he’s dead. The spot sparked a huge amount of backlash, with viewers taking to social media to complain. The company quickly offered up a late-night statement saying the ad was intended to “start a conversation, not sell insurance”, though many said as well as being disturbing, the ad was also confusing.

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(4) Booking.com

The second-most complained about advert in the UK for 2014 was the online booking website’s TV and cinema advert, where the word “booking” was repeatedly used as an apparent substitute for an expletive.

The majority of those complaining said the substitution was offensive, but the Advertising Standards Authority said the word was used comically, while Booking.com said there was “no ambiguity” about the use of the word, and it was referenced repeatedly to reinforce brand recognition.

Choice quotes from the advert included “look at the view, look at the booking view” and “It doesn’t get any booking better than this”.

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(5) The Sun – Win a date with a Page 3 model

Also notching up the complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority was The Sun’s advertisement sent to email subscribers of its fantasy football competition. It offered a date with a Page Three model where the winner could potentially pick which woman they’d like to go out with.

It was banned by the watchdog which ruled the ad demeaning to women, while objectifying those offered as prizes. It wasn’t allowed to appear again in the original form.

The Sun meanwhile, said it was “disappointed” by the ruling and that the email was “an obviously light-hearted marketing exercise”. Many complaints were submitted as part of a campaign led by SumOfUs.org, saying the Sun had reached “a new low”.

Others also said the date offer was an incentive to gamble and therefore irresponsible.

Read on to see which other adverts made our top ten.

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