Print and branding company Solopress looks at controversial print adverts that Britain loved to hate.

The advertising world is fast-paced. In the modern world, companies barely have time to react to global events and culture before they’re too late in capturing the latest trends. Nonetheless, given the stringent sign-off processes and mammoth budgets that are so common in today’s ad industry, you’d be forgiven for wondering how so many off-key, tone-deaf and ill-advised adverts make it to press.

Very few adverts are likely to please everyone, especially if catering to a mass audience. A select few adverts, however, have faced widespread hate from the public, leading to numerous  complaints, and often the subsequent removal of the ad.

It looks like unpopular ads are becoming more common than ever as companies take increasingly larger risks in a crowded marketing space. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) reported a record 43,325 complaints in 2021, highlighting just how keen Brits are to make their point when it comes to advertising. The ASA also stated that 20,456 adverts were amended or withdrawn as a result of their work.

Here’s a look at some of the most notorious print ads of recent years.

1. Tesco Mobile

After receiving 52 complaints, Tesco Mobile’s controversial 2022 “What a load of shiitake” ad was recently banned by the ASA, as it alluded to expletives that were “likely to cause widespread offence”. Additional taglines in the campaign included “They’re taking the pistachio, and “For fettucine’s sake” in reference to other mobile networks increasing bills.

The series of full-page newspaper ads were intended to express customer frustration using a play on words according to Tesco, but the ASA was concerned about the depiction of expletives in ads that could easily be seen by children. Tesco maintained that it did not believe that the ads were in breach of the CAP code as expletives had not been directly used.

The 2022 print-based campaign is a prime example of a creative, humour-led idea being ruled as inappropriate due to the copywriting pushing the boundaries and relating to profanities. As the CAP code is put in place to ensure compliance and there are very few loopholes associated with the guidelines, it is essential that brands do the necessary due diligence and put compliance above creativity.

2. Paddy Power

The Irish betting giant is no stranger to controversy, having released a string of contentious adverts offering odds on which old lady was more likely to be hit by a car, and showing a blind footballer mistakenly volleying a cat. Its most controversial advert, however, offered odds on the results of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, with the strapline ‘Money back if he walks’.

The advert featured in print in the Sun on Sunday, showing a photo of Pistorius that had been heavily edited to look like an Oscar trophy. Unsurprisingly, the ASA received over 5,200 complaints as a result of the ad, a record at the time. An online petition on was also created calling for the advert to be banned, earning over 125,000 signatures.

A spokesperson for the ASA said that the strength of the negative public response to the ad had forced the ASA to take the ‘unusual step’ of telling Paddy Power to pull the advert immediately – when typically, adverts are only banned after the conclusion of an investigation. Meanwhile, an inquest was launched into whether the ad was offensive for trivialising the murder trial, the death of a woman, and disability.

The key takeaway here is that sensitive subject matter related to serious allegations and disability shouldn’t be leveraged as marketing material. Controversial marketing tactics can pay off in some cases, such as in the case of Elvie’s ‘peeing’ billboard raising awareness of women’s incontinence, however, this ad aimed to empower others as opposed to making light of tragic circumstances.

3. Adventure Travel

A serious misstep here from Adventure Travel, formerly known as New Adventure Travel and NAT Group, a Welsh bus company. Responsible for running buses in Cardiff and throughout South Wales, Adventure Travel was aiming to increase the number of young people using its bus services with an advert that would appear on the back of buses on the new X1 route.

The methods used, however, left a lot to be desired and earned Adventure Travel notoriety on a national stage. In 2015, two adverts entered circulation depicting a scantily-clad man and woman holding a placard with the message ‘Ride me all day for £3.’ Understandably, the sexually-suggestive nature of the advert yielded a large number of complaints, leading to the advert being rescinded. Given that the ad featured on the back of NAT group buses, people of all ages the ad would also be exposed to it – making it even more high-risk and inappropriate.

A spokesperson for Adventure Travel said: ‘The slogan… whilst being a little tongue-in-cheek, was in no way intended to cause offence to men or women, and if the advert has done so then we apologise unreservedly.’ The adverts were pulled within 24 hours of the statement, never to be seen again.

4. Yves Saint Laurent

Back in 2000, French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) landed in hot water with UK audiences after a provocative advert which featured model Sophie Dahl fully naked, save for a pair of stilettos.

At the time, the advert, which promoted YSL’s Opium perfume, was one of the most complained about in UK history, earning over 900 complaints to ASA. The fact that the ad in question was a billboard ad certainly did not help YSL’s case, given the ad’s prominent position in the public eye. It was subsequently banned from appearing on billboards across the country, but was permitted to feature in women’s magazines.

Christopher Graham, then ASA Director General, said that the poster was ‘sexually suggestive’, and likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’. As a result, the advert was in violation of advertising code, and was therefore banned.

5. Protein World

In 2015, weight loss and nutrition company Protein World was slammed for an advert that asked viewers whether they were ‘beach body ready’ whilst showing a picture of a model in a bikini. The advert, promoting Protein World’s weight loss products, was spotted regularly at stations on the London Underground, and in a few instances was defaced by commuters.

The Protein World advert led ASA to receive 360 complaints from the public, mostly centred on the fact that the advert objectified women. Meanwhile, a petition asking for the ads to be removed earned 70,000 signatures, indicating wider disapproval from the public. The majority of the complaints argued that the advert promoted unrealistic body standards, and that it was irresponsible to suggest that only a body like the pictured model’s was acceptable.

The advert was then banned by the ASA, although not on the grounds of promoting unrealistic body standards. In fact, there was concern about claims made about the efficacy of Protein World’s weight loss products, with an ASA spokesperson commenting that the advert was pulled ‘due to our concerns about a range of health and weight loss claims made’.

6. British Safety Council

One of the most-complained about British print adverts came from the British Safety Council back in 1995, when it released a highly-controversial leaflet in aid of its work promoting safe sex. As part of the offering for National Condom Week, the leaflet showed an image of Pope John Paul II wearing a hard hat, with the strapline: ‘The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom.’

A strongly-worded letter followed from Cardinal Basil Hume, the head of the Catholic Church in Britain, proclaiming the advert as ‘deliberately and gratuitously offensive to the Catholic community’. Though the British Safety Council argued that the advert was designed as a response to growing numbers of Britons contracting AIDS, the Cardinal argued that Catholicism’s teachings of abstinence before marriage also promoted sexual health.

The advert also received over 1,200 complaints from the wider public, prompting the ASA to take decisive action and ban the advert across the UK.

More foresight needed

Whilst shock tactics and controversial topics have been known to turn heads and result in marketing success in the past, it’s important to proceed with caution and ensure your ad is fully compliant with CAP codes and ASA regulation. When it comes to effective print advertising, it is clear that contentious themes of religion, disability, crime and sexism should be treated with care due to the high risk of offending audiences and causing irreversible damage to your brand.

Glen Eckett, Head of Marketing at Solopress, comments: “If you’ve been wondering how some of these adverts ever made it to print in the first place, you’re not alone. They do say that hindsight is 20/20, but it certainly feels like many of these adverts could’ve benefitted from a bit more foresight.

“There’s a lesson to be learned here – you can be tongue-in-cheek without being offensive, so be sure that your campaign is spot on before heading to press.”