Offensive Advertising and its Regulatory Processes in the UK

Kristina Auxtova, Mary Brennan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Research Question
The aims of this study are three-fold: (1) identify what notfor-profit (NFP) advertising is actually found offensive, (2) explore how offence and harm are attributed to NFP advertising by complainants and regulators and how the associated organizations respond to the complaints received and formal investigations conducted, and (3) critically examine the power structures across the stakeholder groups involved.

Method and Data
To allow for a longitudinal assessment, we analyze a contained data set of 9,055 complaints made to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) during a 6-year-period, along with 309 associated adjudication reports concerning offensive and harmful advertising within the non-profit sector. The analysis focuses on the language, and discourse, used by each stakeholder group (namely complainants, the regulator, and the organization whose ad was complainedabout) and applies multiple analytical approaches: (1) content analysis, (2) thematic analysis, and (3) critical discourse analysis.

Summary of Findings
Our findings suggest that charities (38%) and issues related to children (46%) are most often complained about. We observe certain disconnects in the discourses across the three stakeholder groups as well as a very NFP-specific attitude of “the end justifies the means” among the organizations’ justifications and the regulator’s assessments. We argue that the practice of offensive advertising has become institutionalized not only among advertisers and their ad agencies, but in the regulatory institution as well, raising the question of effectiveness of self-regulatory processes. Further, we demonstrate an imbalance in the power structures among the stakeholder groups represented by the ASA’s dominance and industry-favoring approach.

Key Contributions
On the consumer level, by looking for patterns in offensive and harmful advertising complaints, we contribute to the understanding of actual, rather than potential, offense caused by advertising. The understanding of the discourses of the three stakeholder groups helps to contribute to the ongoing debates on the appropriateness, ethics and application of offensive themes, formats, and imagery in non-profit advertising as well as the debates on effectiveness of self-regulation. Finally, we hope that our findings can help decrease instances of intentional offence in advertising and help find solutions to how the NFP sector can best use controversial and potentially offensive execution tactics for the issues they are organizationally concerned about.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2018 AMA Summer Academic Conference Proceedings
Subtitle of host publicationBig Ideas and New Methods in Marketing
EditorsDavid Gal, Kelly Hewett, Satish Jayachandran
Place of PublicationChicago, IL
PublisherAmerican Marketing Association
Number of pages1
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-87757-002-8
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventSummer AMA Conference: Big Ideas and New Methods in Marketing: - Boston, United States
Duration: 10 Aug 201812 Aug 2018


ConferenceSummer AMA Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address


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