OPINION16 July 2013

He who shouts the loudest...

Are complaints against brand advertising a barometer for public opinion, or just the ramblings of a vocal minority? And just how representative are they?

Britain is becoming a complainant’s society. A report published earlier this year by the Institute of Customer Service reported that Britons are more likely to complain than they were five years ago. 

Indeed, it seems – if you are to believe some recent examples – that this complaint culture has been extended to brands and the ways in which they advertise their products. In recent weeks, soft drink IRN-BRU and Lynx shower gel have been among the products whose advertising has been subjected to scrutiny and subsequent decisions by the Advertising Standards Authority based on viewer complaints. In both cases, the complaints were dismissed.

However, closer examination makes for interesting reading. The IRN-BRU case was investigated on the back of 176 complaints; the Lynx advertisement on the back of just seventeen. IRN-BRU is the third best selling soft drink in the UK, after Coca-Cola and Pepsi in a carbonated soft drinks market worth £3.2bn per annum. In Scotland the equivalent of 12 cans of IRN-BRU 330ml are consumed every second. Yet the brand was held to account on the back of just 176 complaints. Similarly with Lynx, a brand used by more than eight million men across the UK & Ireland every day; equivalent to having the brand in one of every four households in the country. And seventeen people complained.

So how representative are these complaints about television advertising, especially compared with market research? And are these complaints a proper barometer for public opinion, or just the dissent of a vocal minority? On its website, the ASA confirms it needs just one justified complaint to begin an investigation into an advertisement. The ASA’s concern is whether the Advertising Codes have been breached rather the number of complaints it receives. In this sense it is judging whether the brand has breached the code rather whether it has caused offence, which can be quite a subjective measurement and may not always be the same thing. 

Whilst no brand intentionally sets out to offend in its advertising, brands will knowingly tread the line between appealing to the demographic most suited to its products. A brand targeting 25-year-old men is not necessarily going to be thinking about the impact on 55-year-old women if they are not its core target audience. 

What is perhaps more interesting is that proper market research is being conducted every day on behalf of brands in a scientific and proven manner, to test products, packaging and advertising for the way in which they resonate with their target audiences. The investment in this research will produce, inevitably, some negative comments but this will be fed back into the process to deliver a result that works best for the brand and its consumers. How, then, can it be right that brands can be held answerable to a number of people that are – without being disrespectful – a statistical irrelevance? Even if you accept that the number of people who complain are representative of a bigger, silent demographic, their numbers would still be insignificantly small.

The ASA has long demanded on all our behalves – and rightly so – that advertising be legal, decent, honest and truthful. Three of those are black and white decisions; the fourth – decent – is always going to be a matter of opinion and it remains questionable that the decency of brand advertising should be questioned on a sample as potentially small as one person out of the nearly 70 million who live in the UK. 

5 Comments

7 years ago

I don't live in Britain but in the research we've conducted on social media and consumer expectations (https://www.quirks.com/articles/2012/20120808.aspx?msg=3), it became pretty obvious to us that this is an ongoing trend that is increasing in its impacts. Social media and many of the stories told about its use to obtain better service or complain/ punish poorly performing brands have created an entire generation of #HashtagSpankers. I'm sure each of you can recall a story in which you or someone you know used the power of social media to get the attention of a brand with whom you were having difficulties. Many brands are still under the illusion that they -- and not consumers -- own their brands. Those who express surprise and dismay over receiving complaints from to whom the ad was not originally targeted haven't been paying attention to market dynamics. "Tribes", segments or target groups haven't read the agency brief and consume media as they will. If they see a communication with which they take umbrage, they've been trained by their fellow consumers to make some noise to have things changed. An interesting perspective about decency, which we should add to transparency and reciprocity as principle upon which good communications are built.

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7 years ago

It has long been an advertising tactic to create campaigns that offend. A campaign that offends with panache creates significant coverage that can easily outweigh the media budget.

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7 years ago

Great post Andy. We have the same problem here in Australia with our self-regulatory body the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) which is largely consists of members of the public when making decisions. First it is an 'opt-in' body, so any advertiser that is likely to push the envelope is likely to NOT opt-in. Second, when you go to the ASB website the only option is to complain. In essence it takes a single complaint to trigger the (compulsory) review process. It would be like a referendum in which you can only vote 'NO'. Third, we have some very organised lobby groups (primarily from conservative bases) which can quickly organise a couple of hundred complaints, which oddly seem to arrive in a matter of a few hours and have surprisingly similar wording. It is what it is, and we have to rely on the wisdom of the ASB panel, which thankfully seem to tread a sensible line.

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7 years ago

One of my ongoing complaints with advertising is leading consumers to believe that correlation is causation. For exampling, "People who sign up for our online dating service are more likely to find a long-term relationship." I completely understand that they have only 30 seconds to state their claim which leaves almost no room to also say "in comparison to online dating services B, C, and D, which attract completely different demographics than we do." But, I know and they know they are deliberately leading people to incomplete conclusions. Why don't people trust marketing?

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7 years ago

Yes Irn-Bru received 176 complaints, but you cannot then compare that to actual customer counts in the millions in my view. Your 176 is just a small sample of the people that found the advert offensive and had the motivation to complain. The amount of people that actually found it offensive is likely to be much higher, they just didn't have the motivation or know-how to complain.

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