HR & Management

In the eye of the beholder: Six complained-about adverts experts don't agree are offensive

6 min read

19 January 2017

Criticism is not always a sign you’ve done something wrong, especially when it comes to the world of marketing – it all comes down to perspective. The ASA claimed most complained-about adverts were often not the ones that needed banning. But it doesn’t hurt to know what could land you in hot water.

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has released a list of 2016’s most complained-about adverts. But despite many being depicted as having “crossed the line,” the ASA suggested none were offensive.

“Our action leads to thousands of adverts being amended or withdrawn each year, mostly for being misleading,” said ASA CEO Guy Parker. “There wasn’t one misleading advert in our top ten though. So you could say advertising that pushes boundaries invariably lands better with some people than others.

“It’s emphasised by the fact that the adverts attracting the largest number of complaints fell the right side of the line. In all those cases, we thought people would see them in a positive light and that the boundary between bad taste and widespread offence had been navigated well enough.”


It turns out that creating an advert is quite a tricky slope – you can’t please everyone, and perhaps you shouldn’t try to. After all, everyone thinks differently: what’s funny for one customer could be a faux pas for another. So we took a look at the top six in the watchdog’s most complained-about adverts list to find out what businesses thought would be a hit, which garnered some complaints along the way.

1) The dancing bodyguard – 1,063 complaints

With over 1,000 complaints, the third instalment of MoneySuperMarket’s campaign involved Gary dancing to Duck Sauce’s The Big Bad Wolf – and it proved to be a viral hit. The dancer is Tony Wesley, who was part of a famous US hip hop crew in the 80s, and he goes on to show some signature moves.

While the company thought Gary displayed an #epicwolf dance number with a hint of nostalgia, some thought his moves were “not suitable for children”. The lesson seems to be that unleashing your wolf is a no-no if you want to be complaint-free.

2) Gang dance-off – 898 complaints

There was always going to be someone who didn’t like MoneySuperMarket’s Colin and Dave, but almost 900 people protested when they were given similarly dressed background dancers. It was intended to be humorous, and the ASA concluded as much. The watchdog may have been wrong as people claimed it encouraged discriminatory behaviour.

It’s another hat-off to the concept that some of the most complained-about adverts aren’t always ill-intended– it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Next up: kicking cats and kissing women

3) Women kissing – 896 complaints

That a quick search for the advert doesn’t’t deliver results for footage says a lot about how people feel about it. is mostly known for its #LoveYourImperfections campaign – which saw it criticised for suggesting red hair and freckles made the list – but viewers can’t seem to stop getting annoyed at this one specific advert.

A woman gets home from work to her female partner, eventually leading to some kissing and the removal of a shirt. People thought it too sexually explicit, but ASA explained nothing was wrong with it given scheduling restrictions – the advert wasn’t going to feature at times children would be watching TV.

4) A dance-off – 530 complaints

Colin and Gary – and MoneySuperMarket – are back again. In fact, ASA revealed that in total, 2,491 complaints had been filed against the #epicdance adverts featured on the list. “Taking into account the fact some people may find the ad distasteful,” the ASA concluded, “we thought the majority of viewers would interpret the scenes as light-hearted.”

But the light-hearted intention of the advert failed to impress some viewers. It was suggested that Dave’s moves were distasteful and the dance-off in general gave off a homophobic feel, while potentially encouraging hate crimes.

5) Playing blind football – 450 complaints

The advert was originally shown in 2010, garnering over 1,000 complaints – it managed to find itself revived at the end of 2016. The complaints now, and then, are incredibly similar. First off, the advert suggests a man kicks a cat, mistaking it for a ball. Secondly, the players are all blind. The ASA said given its support from members of the England Blind Football Team, the majority of viewers would deem it humorous.

For some 450 people, however, the advert was offensive and obviously encouraged animal cruelty.

6) Gaz and Leccy – 253 complaints

Meet Gaz and Leccy, two freaky-looking cartoon characters who run amok in a house. OK, some scenes could arguably be protested – Leccy gets burnt in a toaster, hit with a spatula and cooked in a microwave – but one wouldn’t think it would make the top ten complained-about adverts list.

The watchdog explained despite unhappy parents claiming it too violent for kids, its cartoon nature reflected that the scenarios were surreal, and would inspire children to stay clears of danger at home.