Shock-Tactic TV Ads on Increase, Reports UK Watchdog

19 December 2003

In its valedictory report before vanishing into the maw of Britain's new telecoms and media supra-watchdog Ofcom, outgoing TV regulator, the Independent Television Commission, revealed an upsurge in commercials triggering high-volume viewer complaints.

According to the ITC, five of the most provocative ads in the last twelve years (judged by complaint numbers) were aired in 2003.

This year's controversial quintet includes such gems of advertising creativity as a hungover man regurgitating a dog (Wrigley's Gum); a school nativity play in which a screaming child acting the Virgin Mary simulates birth pangs (Mr Kipling cakes); and a montage of naked buttocks (Velvet toilet tissue)

Although it is difficult to gauge the true depth of viewer offence -- many of the complaints were probably orchestrated by pressure groups -- the trend sheds an unsavoury light on the tactics of some advertisers and agencies, according to one ad veteran.

"Marketers and agency creatives are not by nature naïve; nor are they insensitive to public susceptibilities, given the massive research spend on ascertaining them in the first place. The shock or offence caused by such ads is no way accidental or incidental. It is a deliberate attempt to grab headlines -- a stratagem with which a grateful press connives.

"Sure, the ads risk being banned, but this rarely happens before the campaign has run its course. By which time, banned or not, the brand benefits from a welter of free publicity with a sterling value far beyond the original budget."

Ofcom, however, appear to be aware of this tacky gambit and plans to nip it in the bud. The new regulator intends to extend the ambit of the Advertising Standards Authority to include radio and television. Currently the ASA, which offers an ad-vetting and advisory service, is responsible only for newspaper, press and billboard advertising.

Data sourced from:; additional content by WARC staff