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Home Rulings WEBAFRICA / FIBRE INTERNET / TIMOTHY WEGE & ANOTHER / 2018-7354F

WEBAFRICA / FIBRE INTERNET / TIMOTHY WEGE & ANOTHER / 2018-7354F

Consumer complaints were lodged against the Respondent’s billboard situated on the grounds of Trafalgar High School in Cape Town and the radio advertisement aired on Smile FM.

The billboard features an image of a man flying with jetpack rockets and states:
"EFFING FAST INTERNET
FIBRE. LTE AT HOME. ADSL”

On the radio advertisement there is a conversation between a radio producer and voice-over artist. The conversation goes as follows: 

VO Artist: "Webafrica internet is… [sound of a bleep] fast. …Dude, did you just bleep me?”

Producer: "You can’t say that on radio”

VO Artist: "Oh! What do you mean I can’t say [sound of bleep]?”

Producer: "No!”

VO Artist: "How ‘bout [sound of a bleep] fast?”

Producer: "No.”

VO Artist: "And [sound of several bleeps]”

Producer: "Dude!”

VO Artist: "Wow. Ah, okay, what about ..err…err effing?”

Producer: [sighs] "Ja. . .”

VO Artist: "Ok! Rad.”

The then voice-over states "visit webafrica.co.za for fibre, LTE at home and ADSL. WEBARFICA. Effing fast internet”.

COMPLAINT

The Complainants took issue with the claim "effing fast internet”. The First Complainant submitted that every day he drives his children to school, and has to explain to his daughter what "effing” means. He argued that he feels offended that the Respondent has forced him to explain the meaning of the word "Fucking" to his daughter. He also submitted that the radio commercial has the same effect. 

The Second Complainant further submitted that whilst the word in itself is not a problem, the advertiser makes it quite clear as to what the word should be, and he finds it extremely offensive and an invitation to children to use the implied word or variances thereof.

RELEVANT CLAUSE OF THE CODE OF ADVERTISING PRACTICE

In light of the complaints the following clauses of the Code were taking into consideration:
  • Section II, Clause 1 – Offensive advertising
  • Section II, Clause 14 – Children


RESPONSE

The Respondent submitted that ‘effing’ is a commonly used word for many people with the express intention of avoiding the use of the actual more profane word it was originally derived from. It submitted that the Cambridge dictionary provides that the word "effing” is an alternative to "fucking”, "flipping” and "freeking”; thus the parent does not need to explain that "effing” means "fucking”, he could just say "flipping” or another alternative. It also argued that the introduction of risqué words to children at a younger age is inevitable with access to the internet. 
 
The Respondent explained that it has six billboards (3 in Johannesburg and 3 in Cape Town) with the claim "effing fast internet”; and since the 1st of March on major radio stations without complaint (Highveld radio in Johannesburg, Talk 702 in Johannesburg, and Smile FM in Cape Town). The respondent also submitted that it was not aware that the billboard in question was placed on school grounds. It therefore commits to blacking out the "Eff” so that billboard simply reads "ing Fast.”  

The Respondent further submitted that the second Complainant acknowledged that he does not have "a problem” with the word "effing” which is the only word actually spoken without being ‘bleeped’. It pointed out that it rejects the complaint that it "make it quite clear as to what the word should be” because it does not say any other word.

It submitted that the advertisement is clearly saying that it is not acceptable to use profane derivatives of "effing” but instead just use the word "effing” to get your point across in an equally strong manner without the need to resort to profanity.


ASA DIRECTORATE RULING

The ASA Directorate considered all the relevant documentation submitted by the respective parties.

Potential undertaking

The ASA has a longstanding principle which holds that where an advertiser provides an unequivocal undertaking to withdraw or amend its advertising in a manner that addresses the concerns raised, that undertaking is accepted without considering the merits of the matter. 

The Respondent has undertaken to black out the "Eff” so the billboard simply reads "ing Fast.”  

The Directorate now has to consider whether the proposed change would adequately address the Complainants’ concerns in relation to the billboards. 

It is clearly stated in the First Complainant’s complaint that his concerns relate primarily to the phrase "effing” and its harmful effect on children. However, the undertaking only seeks to amend the billboard placed in the school premises without addressing the continued use of the claim in the other 5 billboards and other advertising media. While this addresses aspects of the complaint, it does not address the complaint in its entirety.

The Directorate has considered the undertaking in light of the complainant’s concerns, and is not satisfied that the proposed change adequately addresses all the concerns raised by the Complainant.

Merits

The Directorate is faced with two pieces of advertising, the billboard and the radio commercial. In the billboard, the word "effing” appears without any background context, and in the radio commercial it is given the context of being a replacement for a swear word.

The Directorate tends to agree with the Second Complainant that the word "effing” is not in itself a vulgar word. However, the word "effing”, in the context of the claim "effing fast”, cannot be separated from the fact that it replaces the word "fucking”. The Directorate finds the explanation that it could also be replacing words such as flipping somewhat disingenuous, as the word "flipping” and similar words themselves replace the word "fucking”.

As the Respondent put it, the real question is when does the word "eff” become unacceptable? The Directorate also noted the Respondent’s submissions regarding access to the internet and use of phrases such as "WTF”. 

The questions that the Directorate put to themselves were the following:
  • Is the word "effing”, in the context of the material, offensive to adults? This is the enquiry in terms of Clause 1 of Section II.
  • Is the word "effing”, in the context of the material, harmful to children? This is the enquiry in terms of Clause 14 of Section II.

Clause 1 of Section II – Offensive advertising

Clause 1 of Section II states, "No advertising may offend against good taste or decency or be offensive to public or sectoral values and sensitivities, unless the advertising is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society…” It also clarifies that a particular piece of advertising may be offensive to some is not sufficient grounds for upholding an objection.

In considering this clause, the Directorate considered only the reasonable adult consumer, as issues relating to children will be addressed below.

When deliberating on matters pertaining to offence, the Directorate adopts an objective approach, and views the advertising from the perspective of the hypothetical reasonable person. This ensures that predilections and hypersensitive approaches do not negatively impact on the Directorate’s objectivity.

For the advertising to be offensive, it would have to be shown that it contains references that are regarded as inappropriate and offensive under prevailing societal norms and sensitivities. The Directorate should consider the commercial from a hypothetical reasonable viewer’s perspective, who is not over-sensitive or hypercritical. 

In Department of Social Development / E Cillie / 17620 (9 January 2012), the Directorate considered the term "OMG” and noted that:

"Even if, purely for the sake of argument, one were to accept that it is intended to exclusively mean ‘Oh My God’, the complainant has not elaborated on why this is necessarily likely to offend, especially since the term has become widely used in the media … While the Directorate accepts that the respondent has a personal view on the term, it does not believe that the innocuous use of OMG is likely to cause serious, widespread, or sectoral offence”.

Same applies in this instance. The way the word "effing” is used in the radio commercial after the voice over artists proposes a number of unacceptable, bleeped out words. This makes it clear that the words that "effing” replaces are unacceptable. In addition, the bleeping is complete, and no parts of the "real” words are heard. The overall outtake of the commercial is intended to be humorous, and the hypothetical reasonable adult would understand it as such. 

The Directorate attached importance to the fact that the word "effing” is not per se offensive, that it is commonly used and that other phrases such as "WTF” are also in common use. It also noted that these are the only two complaints despite widespread use of the material. It considered that the use of the phrase "effing fast” would not be offensive to the hypothetical reasonable adult.

The use of the phrase "effing fast” and the word "effing” is therefore not found to be in contravention of Clause 1 of Section II of the Code in so far as it is exposed to adult consumers.

However, the phrase is used on billboards that are in public places and on radio at times that children may hear it, and the enquiry therefore does not end here.

Clause 14 of Section II

Clause 14 of Section II states, inter alia, that advertising addressed to or likely to be exposed to children should not contain material that could cause them mental, emotional or moral harm and should not create the impression that it is acceptable to act in a manner generally regarded as unacceptable.

The Directorate first looked towards previous rulings on the use of swear words in public spaces or for children’s consumption.

In Radio 702 / Mr G Hyland and Others (6 April 2001), the complaint was against a Radio 702 billboard that reads "Start your day with a shave, a shower and a little shit”, the billboard was situated on  William Nicol road opposite Bryanston High School. The respondent then amended the billboard to read "Start your day with a shave, a shower and a little shirt”. The Advertising Standards Committee (ASC) held that "The exposure of the word ‘shit’ on a billboard, however, exposes everybody to the word without affording anyone an opportunity to choose whether such person wishes to be exposed to it or not. The placing of the billboard opposite a school aggravates the situation as children are exposed to this type of language. The amendment of the billboard has no effect on the content as the message that the advertiser originally intended, has already been communicated and is in fact reinforced by the nature of the amendment.” This ruling is from an appeal committee of the ASA and has not been overturned, and as such acts as a strong precedent on the Directorate.

This principle was again confirmed in Sunday Sun Newspaper / T Harney & Another (16 May 2006) where the Directorate considered the word "FUCKING”, and held, "the advertisement exposes everybody to this word without affording anyone an opportunity to choose whether or not they wish to be exposed to it… not everybody would regard the word ‘FUCKING’ as acceptable…”.

In a more recent matter, Dial A Nerd / AA Milford / 15791 (20 September 2010), The complaint was against a radio commercial which used the "F” word but beeped it out. It was held "From the above it becomes apparent that placement is a significant factor in determining its impact on the audience. The fact that the F word has been partly censored does not take away the fact that it is still apparent that the old lady is swearing at her computer and using a vulgar word. What is also significant is the fact that the censored word is regarded as highly offensive by the hypothetical reasonable person. The Directorate believes that the use of the F word in the commercial, however censored, is still not desirable when young and easily impressionable children are listening to the radio, as this would harm them mentally, morally or emotionally.”

The Directorate then asked itself whether a child imitating the commercial and using the word "effing” would be acceptable. While the members of the Directorate come from different cultural backgrounds and homes with different views on swearing, it was universally agreed that it would not be desirable for a child to use the word "effing” as an amplifier. The Directorate also noted that a child would most likely get into trouble at school if they used this phrase. Finally in this regard, it is noted that it is highly unlikely that a child would not realise, or come to realise, that the word "effing” stands for "fucking”, especially in the context of the radio commercial.

The Directorate was somewhat divided on the issue of the billboards. On one hand, it was not convinced that the billboards are so appealing to children that they would actually notice the content. The Directorate is also wary of over-sensitivity about language in an evolving society. That said, the billboard execution has the words "EFFING FAST” in a bold, bright and very readable execution.

The Directorate also took into account the observations above regarding children and the word "effing”, and also noted that the word "effing” is not especially relevant or contextualised by the visual of the "rocket man”. For example, the words, "Blasted fast” would have much more relevance to the visual, and the word "blasted” is also a common replacement for more unacceptable swear words. Similarly, a completely non-offensive word such as "Rocket fast” would have tied in with the visual, and had no potential to offend anyone. The only conclusion is that "effing” is chosen for its shock value. 

The Directorate was swayed by the existing and binding ASC ruling on swear words, the fact that it must err on the side of caution in matters involving harm to children and the lack of tie-in between the wording and the overall execution of the campaign.

Based on the above, the Directorate concludes that the claim "effing fast” is not suitable for children and as such contravenes Clause 14 of Section II of the Code.

Given the above finding, the Respondent is ordered to remove the phrase from material, places and times where children are likely to be exposed to it. To avoid misunderstanding, the Directorate notes that it considers any use of the un-amended billboard in a public space to be exposure to children, and any use of the radio commercial at times and in programming that children are likely to be listening to, to amount to exposure to children. 

The material in its current format must be amended or removed in line with the above on the following terms:
  • The process of withdrawing the material must be actioned with immediate effect;
  • The process of withdrawing the material must be completed within the deadlines stipulated by Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide.
The complaint is partially upheld.

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