IP, Technology & Data

Most readers of Brodies TechBlog should be aware by now that the Advertising Standards Agency’s (ASA) remit now covers websites. But I suspect it will come as a bit of a surprise to most people that it has recently issued a ruling against renegade craft brewery BrewDog over the use of some naughty words on its website.

The ASA’s ruling

I won’t repeat the statements complained of here, but they are quoted in full in the ASA’s ruling. To anyone familiar with the BrewDog brand, the statements are consistent with the general brand ethos.

Following a complaint (only one was received), the ASA investigated and found BrewDog to be in breach of rules 1.3 (Social Responsibility) and 4.1 (Harm and Offence) of the CAP Code.

A step too far?

I find this all a bit troubling.

The use of foul or abusive language in a billboard advert next to a road, or in a poster in a shop, where it might be seen in passing by children or people who might be offended, is one thing.

But to impose the same approach to websites is quite another.

As far as I can tell, the statements complained of didn’t appear on the website homepage. Anyone finding the pages would be well aware of BrewDog’s bold and brash style of communications. Further, as a website for a brewery, it is aimed at those aged 18 and over. It’s unlikely that anyone who is going to be offended is going to stumble upon the pages in question. Indeed, several of the fruiter words had letters obscured with asterisks.

You regularly see swear words in the pages national newspapers, often without any asterisking (here is a good summary of The Independent’s current policy).

Was BrewDog actually in breach the CAP code?

It appears that BrewDog didn’t really do much to defend the ASA’s charge, but has (at least temporarily) removed the offending wording. BrewDog co-founder James Watt’s response was to issue a statement disclaiming the ASA’s jurisdiction to police what it says on its website.

Looking at Rule 4.1 of the CAP Code, it seems that there would have been grounds to challenge. Rule 4.1 states that:

Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards

and that

Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule…The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code.

Given that these statements appeared on BrewDog’s website, it’s surprising that the ASA upheld the complaint.

Does the ASA have jurisdiction?

So what of James Watt’s statement that the ASA has no jurisdiction?

Well, the ASA is an independent self-regulatory body, funded by the industry. It acts independent of government. As a consequence, the sanctions that it can impose for a breach of the CAP Code are fairly limited – a withdrawal of members’ trading privileges such as Royal Mail bulk mailing discounts, the requirement for future ads to be pre-vetted before members publish them, the disqualification from industry awards of the agencies that create the offending adverts, and an appearance on a “name and shame” section on the ASA’s website.

In reality, the ASA’s main tool is the bad publicity that can arise out of an adverse ruling. For many organisations, the risk of damage to a well cultivated brand is enough to encourage compliance.

However, in the case of BrewDog, you can’t help feel that this will just help to increase its notoriety.

I’ll leave the final word to Marketing magazine’s headline (NB, if you are likely to be offended by swear words then it’s probably best not following this link).


PS My original title for this post was “BrewDog doesn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX about the ASA”.

PPS I should disclose that I have a (very small) interest in BrewDog having bought some shares in the last round of its Equity for Punks fundraising.

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