According to the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK's advertising watchdog agency, it is not okay to use expletives in advertising even if asterisks or other symbols are used to replace some of the letters. The ASA ruled on August 11 that a marketing company called The Fuel Agency was required to stop mailing a direct ad in the form of a Valentine's Day card that said, on the front, "I F**CKING LOVE YOU," and inside suggested to readers that "You might f**cking love us."
Two unidentified complainants b*tched about the ad, triggering the ASA inquiry. The Fuel Agency responded that it did not believe it had actually used any expletives, saying that in its view, it is "commonly understood that to communicate an expletive without causing offence, it [is] acceptable to use the widespread format 'f**k.' The ASA did not agree:
[We] noted the expletive in the ad was partly obscured but considered the intended meaning was still clear. We were concerned that the expletive, although partly obscured, was used on the front of an untargeted direct mailing. We noted the expletive was irrelevant to the product and considered its use was gratuitous in the context of an ad about marketing services. We concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence to some recipients.
The ad breached CAP Code clauses 5.1 and 5.2 (Decency).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told TFA to take care to avoid causing serious or widespread offence in future.
Setting aside for the moment my general visceral reaction against "decency codes," it doesn't seem all that clear that this ad violates the cited provisions. Clause 5.1 states that marketing "should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence," and that "particular care should be taken" with regard to sensitive grounds such as race or religion. Clause 5.2 recognizes, however, that "[m]arketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily conflicting with 5.1 above." Exactly where this would fall on the continuum between "distasteful" and "serious" is hard to say, and having the government making these kinds of discretionary calls is the sort of thing that in the U.S. might raise First Amendment concerns. But free speech is less free in the U.K.
Having said that, it does seem a little problematic that this was sent via direct mail, rather than (for example) placed in a magazine that someone might have deliberately ordered (and that might not be so decent). Also, I note that the ad agency does not seem to have followed its own proposed rule -- even if it is in fact "acceptable to use the widespread format 'f**k,'" it appears to have used the less-widespread format "f**ck" (unless that is a typo by the ASA). The ASA says only that the ad can't appear "in its current form," so maybe they can drop the C and try again?
There are a couple of oddities about the ruling that should be cleared up if and (hopefully) when this is revisited. First, if it is a factor that the use of this expletive was "irrelevant" and "gratuitous" in the context of an ad for marketing services, would it be okay to use it in the context of a different product, and what exactly would that product be? Second, if "I F**CKING LOVE YOU" is "likely to cause serious "offence," then should the ASA have reproduced this language twice on its own website, which is accessible to anyone on the planet, including literally billions of f**king children?
ASA should remove the offending language immediately, and should take care to avoid causing serious or widespread offence in future.