Ad Complaints in the UK: The Most Complained About UK Adverts of All Time
Last update: 16 June 2023 at 03:07 pm
Advertising is the major form of communication between a company and its potential consumers and advertisements have the main goal of informing or influencing their viewers.
Gaining and holding the attention of consumers is never straightforward, and modern advertisers often employ novel and creative ideas to try and achieve this. From time to time, however, this sort of out-of-the-box thinking can lead to more negative outcomes than positive ones.
The key to avoiding complaints in advertising campaigns is to stay relevant to your audience and communicate with them in clever, fun, and novel ways, without causing offense or breaching ASA codes.
At Sortlist, we help put talented people together by pairing companies with creative agencies that are right for them. Whether you’re looking for advertising agencies, animation studios, or SEO experts, Sortlist can find the right agency for you no matter where you are in the world.
By exploring the official ASA website, we were able to record ad complaint rulings for 35 well-known UK companies. Data on the number of complaints, rulings, and reason for ruling have all been investigated, so we can show you which ads rack up the most complaints.
The Top Ten Most Complained About Ads of All Time
To explore what really made the public livid when it came to advertisements we scoured the internet to locate and report the ads which received the greatest total complaints. From car crashes to animal cruelty, we count down the UK’s top ten most complained about ads of all time.
- Paddy Power – Oscar Pistorius: 5,523 Complaints
The most complained about ad of all time, with a whopping 5,523 complaints is Paddy Power’s 2015 campaign. The bookmakers offered punters their money back if Pa
ralympian Oscar Pistorius was cleared of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp after the tragic incident in 2013. The advert featured Pistorious superimposed on a statue of an Oscar award alongside the tagline “It’s Oscar Time. Money back if he walks”.
Many of the complaints resulted from the mockery of Pistorious’ disability and the jovial attitude towards Steenkamp’s death. Pistorius was convicted later that year and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
- Tesco – Father Christmas’ COVID Passport: 3,000 Complaints
In the runner-up position for most complained about advert of all time is also 2021’s winner, with over 3,000 complaints so far. This TV campaign featured Father Christmas on his way to deliver presents across the world and using a COVID vaccine passport to get through airport security.
The vast majority of complaints asserted that the ad was coercive and encouraged medical discrimination based on vaccine status, likely receiving negative attention from the anti-vax movement.
- Booking.com – “Booking”: 2,500 Complaints
In 2015, Booking.com decided it was a clever idea to employ the repeated use of the word “booking” as a substitute for something much more explicit.
Over 2,500 members of the British public complained and suggested that the adverts were likely to encourage swearing in children where the ad was aired during ad breaks for children’s films such as Harry Potter and Paddington.
- Ryanair – Jab & G: 2,371 Complaints
During the height of the global pandemic in 2020, Ryanair aired a TV spot advertising a holiday price offer using the tagline “Jab and Go!”. The ad received 2,371 complaints. The British public felt that the ads trivialized the ongoing restrictions and effects of the pandemic on society and individuals, were misleading and were socially irresponsible.
- Paddy Power – The Blind Wanderers F.C.: 1,313 Complaints
Back in 2010, Paddy Power ran an unfortunate advert that featured a football match between two blind football teams. During the ad, the football, which carries a bell to alert the players to where it is, was kicked out of play while simultaneously frightening a small cat, known as Tiddles, causing him to run onto the pitch. Unfortunately for Tiddles, he was also carrying a bell on his collar.
Consequently, poor Tiddles is booted off the pitch and into a neighbouring tree before the ref has a chance to stop the game. Many viewers said that the advert was offensive to blind people and could encourage animal cruelty, raking in over 1,300 complaints.
- Go Compare – Compario’s Car Crash: 336 Complaints
Gio Compario, the infamous Go Compare opera singer, had an unlucky accident in 2019 where a television advert displayed him behind the wheel of a car that hits a falling tree and dramatically flips over.
While Compario lived to sing another day, 336 people complained and the road safety charity Brake! declared that the advert “trivialises” the deaths of people on British roads and was a serious misjudgment by Go Compare.
- Deliveroo – Delivery Lies: 300 Complaints
In 2019, Deliveroo’s television ad showed a woman receiving a delivery from a Deliveroo driver, from which she then distributed meals from several different restaurants out of this single bag. The complainants, who understood each restaurant would need a separate order, delivery fee, and delivery, challenged whether the ad was misleading as it suggested this was not the case. The advert collected 300 complaints.
- Photobox – Great Dane Riding: 212 Complaints
Photobox’s 2017 ad appeared to feature a little boy sitting on and riding a Great Dane dog. There were a total of 212 complaints made against the ad, including a complaint from the RSPCA, which challenged whether the advert showed harm to a dog. As it happens, the child never actually rode the Great Dane, and Photobox assured its viewers that the child and dog were recorded separately and noted that a qualified vet was on hand during filming.
- Ryanair – Misleading Environment Claims: 167 Complaints
Several Ryanair adverts claimed that the airline has low CO2 emissions in 2019, which 167 people complained about. ASA ruled that all three of the airliner’s adverts had breached rules on misleading advertising, substantiation, and environmental claims.
- Mondelez (Cadbury) – Freddo the Frog Comic: 128 Complaints
In 2018, Mondelez released a children’s downloadable comic book on their website featuring a cartoon frog and a poster featuring a cartoon image of Freddo the Frog that was seen at a bus stop near a primary school. The advertisements received 128 complaints which argued Mondelez was advertising their product – chocolate bars in the shape of a frog – to children.
Adverts that promote products high in fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS products) are not permitted to be directed towards children. The ASA concluded that the ads were indeed in breach of codes that outline that HFSS products cannot be advertised to children.
Ad Complaints and Rulings in UK Companies
While these top ten are some of the most controversial adverts of all time, there are a variety of reasons an advertisement can pull in complaints. We wanted to take a statistical look into what type of ads and industries rake in the most ad complaints, and which UK company holds the title for most complained about adverts.
Using the official ASA website we investigated 35 well-known UK companies, including FTSE 100 companies, to see which companies and industries racked up the most complaints. Unfortunately, not all ads are publicly recorded on the official ASA website, and as a result, some adverts that make our top ten list are not publicly documented on the ASA website.
For this reason, our statistical investigation will only cover ads that are publicly documented on the ASA website. In addition, the ASA is only able to provide data going back six years from the date of request (25/01/22 for our data).
UK Industries with the Most Ad Complaints and Negative Rulings
- Food Delivery – 323 total complaints
The most complained about industry on our list is food delivery, with the 323 total complaints all of which coming from Deliveroo and most from Deliveroo’s 2019 ad which also reached number seven in our top ten most complained about ads of all time. Roofoods, trading as Deliveroo, has racked up 323 total complaints, also making it the most complained-about company on our list. What’s more, is that Deliveroo has garnered this number from just three rulings, two of which were upheld.
- Automobiles – 113 total complaints
Automobile adverts reach the runner-up spot for most likely to be complained about with a total of 113 complaints from ten cases (six of which upheld). For the most part, people complained about automobile adverts when they encouraged irresponsible behaviour or unsafe driving practices.
Jaguar Land Rover racked up total of 103 complaints from three cases. In two cases, Jaguar was criticised for encouraging unsafe driving practices and irresponsible driving. In their most complained about case, Jaguar received over 90 complaints about encouraging behaviour that was detrimental to the environment, however, this case was not upheld by the ASA.
- Beverages – 93 total complaints
The beverages industry has received a total of 93 complaints across ten cases, five of which were upheld. The beverages have a variety of complaints against their adverts, including advertising to under 18-year-olds, encouraging irresponsible spending on alcohol by students, and perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes.
BrewDog has four total cases, all of which were upheld or upheld in part and totaling 84 complaints from consumers. Over half of these complaints were due to BrewDog’s ads being offensive and inappropriate for display in a medium where they could be seen by children.
Out of all industries, it was telecommunication that has the highest number of upheld cases, resulting from the high number of upheld rulings recorded against Vodafone Ltd. In total, the telecommunication industry has seven upheld cases against it.
Type of Ad with the Most Complaints
- TV – 449 total complaints
Television ads are by far the most complained about on the ASA website, with over twice as many complaints as the next highest complained about ad type. Companies across many industries make use of television as a medium to spread brand awareness and as is clear here, more likely to lead to complaints than any other type of ad. This may be because television awards advertisers greater creative possibilities than other forms of advertisements, which can sometimes lead to over-zealous ideas, such as the Go Compare advert which depicted a dramatic car crash.
- Press – 170 total complaints
Press and newspaper publications, some of the most traditional advertising mediums, pull in the second-highest number of complaints with 170. From the data, it seems that the biggest problem with these types of ads is that they often mislead consumers with false or inaccurate information.
- Poster – 103 total complaints
Posters have accrued 103 complaints making them the third most complained about ad type on our list. Posters are most often accused of being inappropriately placed, for example, poster advertisements for HFSS, nicotine, or alcoholic products placed near schools or on school buses will more than likely pull in a wave of complaints regarding this inappropriate placement.
The Most Common Reasons for Ad Complaints
- Misleading – 561 total complaints
The single most common reason for ad complaints was that the ad was misleading. Often accompanied by other reasons, many adverts get accused of being misleading if they give you a false idea about a product, service, or company. Many adverts also mislead their consumers regarding promotional offers, for example, not being clear about price changes.
- Encouraged behaviour that was detrimental to the environment – 96 total complaints
Second on our list of most common reasons for ad complaints is encouraging behaviour detrimental to the environment, which totalled 96 complaints. These complaints originated from Land Rover’s 2021 ad which claimed “LIFE IS SO MUCH BETTER WITHOUT RESTRICTIONS” which many believed implied Land Rover’s vehicle was above restrictions, including those aimed at preventing climate change.
- Offensive – 92 total complaints
At number three for most common ad complaints is that the ad in question is offensive. There is a boundless amount of reasons that someone could take offence to an ad campaign, however, most commonly it is because the advert has used some too-obvious replacement for an expletive, as was the case for the Booking.com advert seen in our top ten most complained about ads.
So there you have it, the UK’s most complained about ads. Want to avoid a bad campaign? Then watch out and learn from the mistakes seen in our list. Stay away from potentially offensive language, watch out for misleading your consumers, and take care where you promote your business. Maybe think about adding a cat or a dog in your video, our study shows that cats and dogs can boost your business by 300%!
We searched the official ASA website to record ad complaint rulings for 35 well-known UK companies to gather the data for these lists. Data on the number of complaints, rulings, and reason for ruling were recorded.
We conducted wider internet searches to locate the most complained about adverts in history, however, some that made our list are not substantiated on the public ASA website. In addition, the ASA is only able to provide data going back six years from the date of request (25/01/22 for our data).