The Advertising Standards Board (ASB) has dismissed complaints about a campaign for chicken chain Nando’s this month after viewers claimed it alluded to swearing.
The decision from the watchdog further cements its position that brands can use acronyms in their ads even if they might carry innuendo.
The board considered complaints about a radio spot promoting Nando’s “WTF” deal, which is available on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The ad details the content of the deal and explains it is only available on the final three days of the working week.
One complainant wrote that they heard the ad while travelling in the car with children and were then faced with questions about what “WTF’ meant.
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“I don’t think the authority should have approve [sic] foul language to be used in a daily conversational channel,” the complainant wrote.
In response, Nando’s told the Ad Standards Board that after considering section 2.5 of the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics, which relates to obscene language, it believes its campaign did not breach the code. Nando’s argued the “WTF” acronym was clearly used to mean ‘Wednesday, Thursday, Friday” instead of the commonly understood phrase “what the fuck”.
“Most reasonable consumers in our view will recognise that use of the acronym is a subtle reference to the acronym’s other more common use. That said, as no strong or obscene language actually features in the advertisement at all, we submit that the advertisement does not breach provision 2.5 of the Code,” the company said.
The board agreed, reflecting that it had previously dismissed complaints about another version of this campaign which was run on a bus billboard.
“The board considered that the use of WTF may be understood to suggest strong language by some members of the community, but that the use of the term WTF was, of itself, not language which is necessarily strong or obscene, or inappropriate in the circumstances,” the decision reads.
The Ad Standards Board also reflected it had previously dismissed similar cases about allusions to swearing, including a 2011 case in which a viewer had complained about the use of “WTF” in an ad for retailer Kids Warehouse.
The Nando’s decision comes in the same month that the board dismissed another complaint about a print publication from outdoor goods retailer BCF, which invited readers to “Kit Out the BCFing Old Man” for Father’s Day.
The retailer’s use of the “BCFing” phrase has generated several complaints to the watchdog this year. But once again, the board ruled the acronym in this case referred to a “Boating, Camping and Fishing” man, and was not intended in an aggressive fashion.
“Overall the board considered that in the context of a print advertisement left in letterboxes the language used in the advertisement is not inappropriate in the circumstances,” the board decided.
SmartCompany contacted Nando’s for further comment but did not receive a response about its campaign prior to publication. SmartCompany contacted BCF but the company said it had nothing further to add on the decision.
Community standards shape rulings
Advertising expert and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne Dr Lauren Rosewarne says the board’s point of view on the “WTF” acronym speaks to how its decisions reflect the way the community typically use phrases.
“The ASB adjudicates by keeping in mind community standards; “WTF” is well established in our culture and used in a variety of situations where using the F word alone wouldn’t be appropriate,” she tells SmartCompany.
The board has taken the stance that when using acronym phrases like this, ads are “unlikely to capture an audience of unknowing children,” she says.
While the watchdog has now established a stance on advertisers alluding to swearing, that doesn’t mean they won’t change their definitions in future, says Rosewarne.
“What might have been offensive a generation ago may not be so potent now. It is folly to think words that are found rude one year will always be considered as such,” she says.