This is the response from the Advertising Standards Agency to the 700 or more citizens, including myself, who felt moved to complain about the "Christmas in the Trenches" ad.
The widespread complaints were reported in the press, although the number of complaints was eventually far higher than early reports indicated.
ASA have decided not to uphold the complaint.
Dear Mr Sloboda,
YOUR COMPLAINT: A14-286204 J SAINSBURYS PLC in part. with THE ROYAL BRITISH LEGION
Thank you for contacting the ASA and for your patience.
Our role as an organisation is to help ensure that advertising is responsible by, in essence, being legal, decent, honest and truthful. We can intervene if an ad appears likely to be in breach of the Codes of Advertising by, for example, being likely to cause serious or widespread offence, being materially misleading or risking causing significant harm.
In this case, we decided to put your concerns, along with a number of similar complaints we had received about this ad, to the independent ASA Council for consideration, rather than simply using the delegated responsibility of the ASA Executive’s staff. The ASA Council is the jury that decides whether advertisements have breached the Advertising Codes.
They have now carefully considered the ad, in the context of its appearance on TV, in the cinema and on YouTube, and the issues raised by all complainants, but have concluded that there are insufficient grounds for further ASA intervention on this occasion. Although we acknowledge the particular resonance this ad may have for those who lost family in the First World War, or any other conflict, we can only intervene where there has been a specific breach of the Codes we administer.
I should explain that the ASA does not intervene where advertising is simply criticised for being in poor taste. The Code requires that ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, but ads may be ‘distasteful’ without necessarily breaching this rule. Complaints about offence often require difficult judgements. Apart from freedom of speech considerations, even well-intentioned and thoughtful people will have different and sometimes contradictory opinions about what constitutes ‘bad taste’ or should be prohibited. We can only act if the ad, in our judgement, offends against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.
I should also make clear that the ASA has no influence over the wider creative decisions taken by advertisers (or the agencies that work on their behalf) to use a particular character, situation, music or theme in their ad campaigns. We consider the particular content of specific ads and as long as the content of the ad does not breach our Code, it is really up to the advertiser what they want to put in it and what theme they choose.
In this case, we received over 700 complaints about this ad and the ASA Council considered four main issues;
1. Whether the ad was offensive because complainants had found the use of an event from the First World War to advertise a commercial company insulting, demeaning, disrespectful, insensitive and exploitative;
In terms of this first issue, the Council noted that the only reference to the advertiser was the brief inclusion of their logo at the end of the ad and that the only identifiable product was a bar of chocolate, the profits from the sale of which were to be donated to the Royal British Legion, with whom the advertiser had partnered in making the ad. It was understood that the ad had been made, at least partly, as a celebration of the 20 years of support that the advertiser had given to the charity and that they had worked to ensure historical accuracy by basing it on original reports and letters, as well as working with historians throughout the development and production process.
Although the Council acknowledged that some would find the use of an event from the First World War for advertising purposes distasteful under any circumstances, they considered that viewers in general were likely to see the specific depiction in this ad as respectful to both sides of the conflict, relevant to both the First World War Centenary and Christmas, and a poignant reminder of the historical event which inspired the ad.
Despite the fact that it had clearly divided opinion and some had found it to be in poor taste, the Council did not consider the content of the ad likely to cause serious or widespread offence in breach of the Code.
2. Whether the depiction was too "sanitised" and that the ad therefore trivialised and undermined the tragedy and glamorised, glorified and romanticised war;
With regard to the second issue, while the Council noted that the ad was not as graphic as the real events would have been, they considered that viewers were likely to be aware of the horrors of war and understand that the reality would have been very different. They did not consider it likely that viewers would require overtly graphic or explicit imagery of violence and death in order to appreciate the message, or to remember the sacrifices made in the First World War.
The Council considered that viewers generally would see the portrayal in the ad as emphasising the positive nature of the event shown and the message the ad aimed to convey rather than as trivialising or undermining the tragedy of the First World War, or glamorising, glorifying or romanticising war generally.
3. Whether it was inappropriate for broadcast given that this year marked the First World War Centenary and the ad appeared shortly after Armistice Day;
In relation to the third issue, the Council noted that the ad had first been broadcast the day after Armistice Day but that no specific complaints had been received about the ad being broadcast around programmes specifically dedicated to the First World War or Remembrance. Although they understood that some consumers had found the timing to be distasteful, they considered that the ad was likely to be seen as topical and relevant and, given the content, its broadcast around this time was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
4. The objection that the TV version of the ad did not make immediately clear that it was an ad for supermarket.
Finally, in terms of the fourth issue, the Council understood that the ASA had not received any complaints suggesting that the ad had been shown around programmes specifically dedicated to the First World War or Remembrance and that complainants had believed it to be either a charity ad or a trailer for a programme or film before the advertiser's logo appeared. It was noted that the Code required that ads were obviously distinguishable from editorial content to avoid confusion between the two and that the audience should quickly recognise the message as an ad. The Council considered that the TV ad, in the context of the scheduling they were aware of, was obviously distinguishable from editorial content and given that the complainants had quickly recognised the message as an ad, albeit not one for a supermarket, they considered that it did not breach the Code on this point.
For these reasons, the ASA Council have concluded that there are no grounds for further investigation on the issues raised and that the ad does not breach the Code for the reasons suggested. As such, we will not be taking any further action on this occasion.
I appreciate that this may not be the outcome you had hoped for, but we have passed a summary of the issues raised to the advertiser (without revealing anyone’s identity) so that they’re aware of views such as yours. We will also continue to monitor the response to this ad.
Although we are not taking further action on this occasion, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with us. If you would like more information about us or our work, please do visit our website, www.asa.org.uk.
Senior Complaints Executive
Direct line 020 7492 2203
Advertising Standards Authority
Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6QT
Telephone 020 7492 2222
Follow us on twitter: @ASA_UK
Legal, decent, honest and truthful
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Advertising Standards Authority (Broadcast) Ltd will use the information you have given us to deal with your complaint. If your complaint falls under the remit of a different regulatory body, we will normally pass it on to that body. If you are seeking suppression from an advertiser’s database or have not received goods or a refund, we will pass the details of your complaint to the advertiser so it can take action.