The list included adverts from: Money Supermarket (1,513 complaints), Booking.com (683), PayPal UK (464), Booking.com (407), Protein World (380), British Heart Foundation (219), Booking.com (201), UK Department of Health (181), Nicocigs (145) and Omega Pharma (136).
The investigation into Protein World’s London Tube adverts was sparked by a social media campaign which won 71,111 petition signatories. Critics claimed the posters asking ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ put pressure on women to adhere to a certain body type.
The headline-grabbing campaign culminated in 380 complaints logged with the ASA. However in its final ruling the ASA concluded the advert was not likely to “shame women who had different body shapes into believing they needed to take a slimming supplement to feel confident wearing swimwear in public”.
The ASA said at the time it had to be blind to such social media "white heat" and when this public "noise" was removed from the picture there was little reason to ban the advert.
Viewers said Omega Pharma’s advert for its slimming aid XLS Medical presented an irresponsible approach to body image and confidence in its presentation of a healthy, slim young woman apparently unhappy about her weight before a beach holiday.
The company did not respond to our request for comment in time for the publication but told us at the time of the ruling it had not meant to “cause offence, simply to highlight the variety of healthy weight-loss and weight-maintenance goals and motivations XLS-Medical can support with”.
This was the only complaint within the top ten list upheld by the ASA.
The list was dominated by issues of harm and offence.
For example the public disapproved of the British Heart Foundation’s “distressing” depiction of a boy whose father had died from a heart attack.
Meanwhile the UK Department of Health upset viewers with its “graphic and gruesome” anti-smoking campaign, which showed a man rolling a cigarette made of blood and flesh.
Money Supermarket’s advert received the most complaints by far. Viewers said the images of a man dancing down a street in denim shorts and high heels was “overtly sexual”.
However, the ASA said in reality 75% of its caseload was made up of complaints about misleading advertising.
In a statement, ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Our top 10 for 2015 will no doubt get people talking about whether the ads are or aren’t offensive, but there are important issues at stake here. Advertisers must take care not to cause serious or widespread offence, but we don’t play a number’s game.”
“And while matters of offence can grab the headlines, the bulk of our work is the less glamorous task of tackling misleading advertising. That’s why we’re taking a more proactive approach to address the issues which affect consumers the most before complaints need to be made.”
The ASA said if such complaints of misleading advertising were upheld, it would “not hesitate” to impose a ban.
A history of complaints
The investigation into body image pressure was the second ASA enquiry involving Protein World last year. Earlier in the year the authority upheld a complaint that the company was using unauthorised health claims on its products.
In the April ruling the ASA wrote: “We considered the product's name ‘Slender Blend’ was in itself a health claim, which implied weight loss. We had not seen evidence that ‘Slender Blend’ was an authorised health claim.”
Nearly one year on and the company has just launched a new bikini-clad campaign using the brand name Slender Blend for a weight loss meal replacement product.
The ASA told us it had been working with the company “behind the scenes” to help it bring its claims in line with what is permitted under the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Register (NHCR).
However a spokesperson said this week the substance of these discussions was confidential, stating, "further to our ruling our Compliance team is now satisfied that the marketing claims that were formerly in breach of the Advertising Code in that ruling aren’t likely to be so anymore.”
It is unclear what changes have been made to the product or if further science has come to validate the brand name under the NHCR.
The company did not respond to our request for comment by publication.
This complaint led to the company’s expulsion from the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA).