The ASA has chosen not to investigate a recent Red Bull ad which purportedly makes light of the sinking of the Titanic, despite the ad receiving nearly 150 complaints. The television ad in question sees a crate of the energy drink being lifted onto an unspecified ocean liner. The captain questions the need for the drink, explaining that there is no need for wings on the ship. The crate is then lowered back on to the dock, revealing the name of the vessel – the Titanic. Complaints were received from outraged relatives of the deceased passengers as well as from Titanic Heritage Trust founder, Howard Nelson, who described the advert as “very offensive”, “distasteful” and argued that “it shows gross disrespect to the memory of all those whose lives have been touched by the Titanic and have since been lost to us”.

The ASA decided that the ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence, and therefore was not in breach of Rule 4.2 of the BCAP Code, despite the number of complaints received. The advertising watchdog said, “Although the ad would be distasteful to some, it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or be generally seen as making light of the lives that were lost in the disaster”. The Austrian energy drink manufacturer has a history of prompting controversy, with a previous ad being canned in South Africa after the national advertising regulator was inundated with complaints. The ad showed Jesus walking on water.

Whilst not an entirely surprising decision by the ASA given the relatively small number of complaints, and concentrated nature of complainants on this occasion, it does provide advertisers with confirmation that certain historical events are not entirely untouchable, provided that they remain within the BCAP Code limits. It is often tricky to assess whether an ad could cause “serious and widespread offence” and potentially breach the Code, especially as the ASA is not restricted by precedent, and therefore we would advise that advertisers exercise caution and discuss their concepts with a member of the ReACTS Team.