Brand owners which like to sail close to the wind by making a play on foul language have been given confirmation of just how far they can go following an ad watchdog investigation into a Sky TV campaign.
The TV ad for Sky Cinema, seen in April 2022, featured clips from several films, including The Fast & Furious 9, Venom, Ghostbusters Afterlife, Dune and Stillwater.
One of the films highlighted was The Boss Baby: Family Business. The ad showed five ninjas in black clothing holding weapons and the voice-over said, “A fight for family. Or fighting a family of baby ninjas?”
The Boss Baby character was shown holding a stack of money. A sword then appeared, cutting the money and the Boss Baby was left holding five paper men. The Boss Baby said: “What the fudge?”
Cue a raft of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority from enraged members of the public, who challenged whether the ad was offensive as it alluded to an expletive. Others challenged whether the ad was scheduled inappropriately, as it was broadcast throughout the day when children could be watching.
In response to the ASA investigation, Sky said The Boss Baby 2: Family Business film had a PG rating and the clip shown with the line, “What the fudge” was an extract from the film.
No offensive language was used in the ad and all content from the film featured in the ad was deemed suitable to be seen by children, the broadcaster claimed.
Sky noted that several shops and businesses were called “What the fudge” and the term had been registered as a trademark. That indicated that the words were not inherently offensive.
TV ad clearing house Clearcast added that it was wrong to understand the word “fudge” as a replacement for the stronger expletive “fuck”. It said “fudge” would be understood to be a standalone mild expletive similar to “fiddlesticks” and noted that it also appeared in phrases such as, “To fudge the issue” and “The decision was a fudge”.
In addition, the film was about a comic book baby and was intended for a family audience. It was therefore unlikely that such a film would use a joke about one of the most extreme swear words.
Clearcast acknowledged that while some people might find the scene distasteful, they believed it would not cause serious or widespread offence, or harm to under 18s. On that basis no scheduling restriction was needed.
In its ruling, the ASA dismissed the complaints, stating that while it acknowledged some viewers might find the use of the word distasteful, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
The ad was cleared for future activity.
The ruling contrasts sharply with BrewDog’s attempts to avoid censure. In 2020, the firm was forced to ditch a campaign that was designed to big up its environmental record, under the strapline “F**k You CO2. Brewdog Beer Is Now Carbon Negative”, despite the double asterisk.
A year earlier it was forced to rip up a poster campaign for its alcohol-free beer Punk AF – which carried the strapline “Sober as a motherfu” – after the ad watchdog branded the play on words offensive.
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