Religious Parodies Spawn Britain's 'Most Offensive' Ads

27 April 2005

However you view the uproar caused last year by a raft of deliberately provocative British ads that melded the execrable with the memorable, few will be forgotten.

Was the resultant furore an orchestrated protest by the religious right? Or cynical exploitation by creatively-challenged ad executives? Or both?

Of the four campaigns triggering most complaints from the UK public in 2004, three employed religious imagery, reveals the annual report of the nation's ad watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority.

The first, a pre-Christmas TV commercial touting Mr Kipling's Mince Pies, depicted a real life birth during a nativity play. Christian groups protested that it mocked the birth of Jesus: their 800-plus complaints were upheld by the ASA and the ad was withdrawn.

A second campaign used press and billboards to hype Channel 4's Christmas holiday edition of Shameless, its award-winning comedy series about a dysfunctional proletarian family. It did so with a visual pastiche of da Vinci's famed painting, The Last Supper. However, the 264 complaints were rejected, on the grounds that the ads parodied the painting rather than the event itself.

In number three position came another billboard ad, huckstering post-coitus pill Levonelle. Its strapline ('Immaculate contraception? If only') triggered 182 howls from the devout. Their complaints were upheld.

Tagging along at number four was an ad without religious overtones. This promoted budget airline Ryanair and appeared on November 5 [a UK festival celebrating the burning at the stake of the traitor Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 plotted to blow-up the House of Commons]. The ad, a masterpiece of pre-pubescent sniggering was headlined "FAWKing great offers" - and finally banned weeks after its one and only appearance.

Many in the UK advertising industry are offended less by the impiety and smut of these campaign than by their calculated use of shock tactics to grab consumer eyeballs. This, they argue, is evidence of creative impotence.

Certainly, the lengthy timelag between the first exposure of offensive ads and adjudication allows their creators time to exploit (in some cases, fuel) the public furore they are designed to create.

The self-appointed guardians of John Bull's morality - and even some ad professionals who respect their craft - argue that the ASA's present voluntary ad pre-vetting service should become mandatory.

Now that would create a real howl of protest!

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff