Most complained about adverts 2014

20 February 2015

The votes are in, the count has been checked and verified and today, the ASA has published the list of 2014's top ten most complained about adverts. However, what marks 2014 apart as a groundbreaking year for advertising shock value is the news that the top three in this list are also the top three adverts based on number of complaints of all time. Well done advertisers.

So, without further pause for dramatic effect, the winners are:

pistoriusad#1 Paddy Power and THAT Oscar Pistorious ad.

Hardly likely to be a surprise, Paddy Power's Oscar Pistorious ad was generally found to be in poor taste, drawing a record 5525 complaints to the ASA, which is more than three times the complaints levied against #2. While the ad, which offered a ‘money back if he walks’ guarantee for bets placed on the verdict of Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial, was a clever pun , the ASA found that it caused serious offence by trivialising the issues surrounding a murder trial, the death of a woman and disability, and pulled the ad immediately.  Paddy Power were also berated for bringing "advertising into disrepute."

#2 telling us all to 'book off'

1,768 people complained about this ad (although more complaints are still coming in in 2015) which jovially replaced the word 'booking' for a profanity in a TV and cinema ad. While many claimed the ad was offensive and encouraged bad language amongst children, the ASA did not uphold the complaints, judging that it was a light hearted play on words that couldn’t be mistaken for an actual swear word.

In a characteristic show of common sense, the ASA also ruled that it was unlikely to encourage swearing amongst children as any children that did pick up on the joke were unlikely to have learned bad language through the ad itself.

#3 The Sun's prize of a bra-less lady

Just pipped into third spot at 1,711 complaints was the Sun's genius idea to offer a date with a page 3 model as a prize in a fantasy football competition.

Despite the likely numerous Sun readers rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of such a prize, the ASA decided that offering a date with a woman as a reward for success in the game was demeaning to women and objectified those offered as prizes. They took especial note of the wording “we might even let you pick which one, so feel free to start your research now …”, considering it "further enhanced the impression that the women were simply objects to be selected at the whim and enjoyment of the winner, and had no choice in the matter themselves.”

The ad was banned on the grounds that it was "sexist, offensive and socially irresponsible” and objectified women.

ww1 stamps#4 Sainsbury's Christmas advert

You're surprised at this one aren't you, with many people suggesting that Sainsbury's actually managed to out-John Lewis in the schmaltzy Christmas advert stakes in 2014. However 823 complaints were lodged against this advert, mostly objecting to the use of an event from the First World War to advertise a supermarket.  While acknowledging that some found the ad to be in poor taste, the ASA did not judge the ad to be offensive and in breach of the Code.

#5 Save the Children

This charity appeal advert showing a women giving birth to a baby with the help of a midwife spawned 614 complaints that the scenes were offensive, distressing and inappropriately scheduled. One wonders how such people thought they arrived into the world. However, the ASA showed them short shrift and did not uphold the complaints, saying the ad’s post 9 pm scheduling restriction appropriately reduced the risk of younger viewers seeing the ads and causing distress. Because adults should be able to cope with the facts of actual life.

#6 Waitrose Ltd

267 people had an issue with a TV ad that claimed  ‘Everyone who works at Waitrose owns Waitrose’ as some things, like cleaning, were outsourced, meaning the cleaners did not, in fact, own Waitrose. This one never went as far as getting a ruling though, Waitrose amended the ad once concerns were raised.

cigarettes#7  VIP Electronic Cigarettes

The ASA received 199 complaints that two VIP e-cigarette TV ads glamourised and promoted the use of tobacco products.  The ASA did not uphold the complaints about glamourisation, but did consider the ads depicted the products being exhaled in a way that created a strong association with traditional tobacco smoking.

#8 www.

The 188 complaints against this site formed part of a sector-wide investigation into copycat websites. The work included commissioning consumer research and taking action across the sector to remove misleading claims, imagery and emblems.  It also involved supporting the Government awareness campaign #StartAtGOVUK, which warns those looking for official services to start at GOV.UK to avoid misleading websites.

#9 Flora Buttery

This animated TV and YouTube ad for Flora Buttery showed two children making breakfast in bed for their parents and walking in on their parents ‘wrestling’.  The ASA received 183 complaints that the ad was offensive and unsuitable for children to see.  While the ASA acknowledged that while the ad was suggestive, it did not contain any sexually graphic or distressing scenes, and so was unlikely to cause undue fear or distress to young viewers.


Another part of the 'copycat website' investigation, this site drew 177 complaints.

The ASA also said that the rise of social media, which has allowed members of the public to voice and co-ordinate their concerns about ads is the reason for the rise in complaints, leading to the top three most complained about ads ever all falling in 2014. Many of the complaints about the Paddy Power ad and the third most-complained about ad (The Sun’s ‘Win a Date with a Page 3 Model’) were coordinated via the online petition site, And while most of the ads that prompt high numbers of complaints do so on the grounds of Mary Whitehouse style offence, most of the hundreds of millions of ads that appear each year don’t raise concern.  Where they do, it’s mostly in relation to misleading claims, which make up around 75% of all cases received by the ASA.

Guy Parker, ASA Chief Executive, said: “2014 was the year social media came into its own in making it easier than ever to lodge complaints en masse. While some ads will inevitably split opinion, as the diverse nature of complaints we received shows, last year underlined the importance of our work in cracking down on misleading ads, including copycat websites, that are simply unfair to consumers.”

TOPICS:   Advertising


  • Albi
    "further enhanced the impression that the women were simply objects to be selected at the whim and enjoyment of the winner, and had no choice in the matter themselves.”" Like a strip club then? Pretty sure they were legal.
  • Luke
    Sorry, but the Oscar Pistorius advertisement was hilarious.
  • Scrotal H.
    " telling us all to ‘book off’" Toyota keep telling me to "Go fun myself" but quite frankly they can poke it up their Yaris.
  • you
    How come "Book Off" was complained about, but a recent car advert - cant remember who for - has the tag line "Go Fun Yourself" I was outraged down to my slippers

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