Controversy arose again this week over the use of animals in advertising. The British public is famously protective of its furry friends, and the ASA often receives large numbers of complaints over the depiction of animals in ads, especially where there is any suggestion of possible mistreatment. One of the most complained about ads of the last few years featured a dog behaving confidently inside a car (singing, incidentally) but timidly outside it. The ad, from Volkswagon, attracted 733 complaints from viewers, who felt that the dog shown outside the car appeared to be in distress and that the ad could promote animal cruelty. Rule 6.3 of the BCAP Code requires evidence that an ad featuring an animal must not be broadcast without evidence that the animal has not been killed, caused pain or suffered distress. The ASA noted in that a vet had been present on set and had attested to the humane treatment of the dog during filming of the Volkswagon ad. It concluded that a singing dog was fantastical and that the ad was unlikely to promote animal cruelty. The ad went on to receive a Cannes Lions Silver Award that year.

Several other recent ads have attracted complaints where viewers have felt that the behaviour towards animals featured in the ads could result in harm to animals if copied in the real world. Again, there are provisions in the Codes with regard to advertisers promoting a sense of social responsibility. A John Lewis Christmas ad in 2010 which featured a dog outside in the snow, attracted over 300 complaints. In 2012, a Morrison’s ad prompted 234 complaints for showing a dog being fed Christmas pudding, which apparently contains ingredients harmful to dogs if consumed in large quantities. Only a small amount was fed to the animal in question, which was seen to reject it anyway. Finally, Boots’ 2012 Christmas ad featuring a child styling her dog’s fur with a hairdryer, was also criticised (receiving 21 complaints) for promoting potentially harmful behaviour towards animals if such activities were emulated by viewers. The ASA rejected the complaints against all of these ads concluding that the animals did not appear to be in distress and that the activities portrayed on screen would be unlikely to be copied by viewers. In spite of the number of complaints received, the ASA has discretion as to whether it investigates a potential breach of the Code.

This week, national favourite Marmite faced a public backlash against its ad “End Marmite Neglect“. So far, the ad has prompted over 350 complaints to the ASA. The ad spoofs animal rescue documentaries and features neglected jars of Marmite being rescued from the back of kitchen cupboards and taken to rescue centres to be rehoused with lovers of the product. The complainants have criticised the ad for trivialising the work of animal rescue charities and potentially condoning animal cruelty. Unilever, the owner of the Marmite brand, denies that it was its intention to cause offence and in fact has responded to the criticism by making a sizeable donation to the RSPCA. We await a decision from the ASA as to whether it will investigate the ad for a breach of the BCAP Code. Meanwhile, the famous strapline for Marmite, “You either love it or you hate it”, seems to also ring true for its current advertising.