Most complained about ads of all time

Advertisers are constantly trying to push the boundaries between style, shock and just being out right offensive. Tackling everything from God to a naked Sophie Dahl, Marketing Week takes a look at the ten most complained about ads of all time.

1. KFC Restaurants
1,671 complaints
Not upheld

Barely a taboo has been left unturned in this list. All except one. It seems that the UK are a nation riled more by poor table etiquette than depictions of child abuse, pre-watershed violence and abortion. Nearly 2,000 viewers voiced their disgust at a KFC advert that showed people singing with their mouth full. The fast-food chain claimed the ad was “meant to be funny” despite complaints that it encouraged bad manners. The ASA ruled turned a blind eye to the advert, which is the most complained about ad in UK history.

2. AuctionWorld
1,360 complaints
License Revoked

Shopping channel AuctionWorld took one too many liberties with poor customer service and misleading guide prices, leading it to be named the most complained about broadcast campaign of 2004. It ended in tears for the company as the ASA passed the investigation on to Ofcom who duly revoked the channel’s licence to broadcast. AuctionWorld folded in 2005 after being unable to pay debts of £14m.

3. Paddy Power
1,313 complaints
Not Upheld

It seems like the Irish bookmaker is on a never-ending quest to offend as many people as it can with its ads. Back in 2010 the brand was just getting warmed up and caused outrage with this cat-kicking spot. It’s nowhere near as offensive as some of Paddy Power’s more recent ads, but it did go some way to affirming its status as a purveyor of the controversial. The regulator said the ad was too surreal and light-hearted in tone to convince people to abuse animals.

4. The Christian Party
1,204 complaints
Not upheld

Christian Party

“There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.” This strapline fuelled a flurry of complaints against the organisation’s advertising campaign after appearing on the side of buses in 2008. It is the most complained about non-broadcast advert ever and attempted to mirror the ‘Atheist Bus’ campaign from the British Humanist Association earlier that year.

The ASA was prevented from investigating the ad because it was deemed to be “electioneering material” and fell outside the remit of its codes of practice.

5. British Safety Council
1,192 complaints


Marketers are constantly trying to break new ground – push the boundaries and build a name for their brands. Sometimes this can go too far and its perhaps not surprising that this ad, which featured the Pope wearing a hard hat with the strapline ‘The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt always wear a condom’, was banned back in 1995.

6. Marie Stopes International
1,088 complaints
Not upheld

The ‘Are You Late’ campaign escaped censure despite being criticised for offering abortion advice. The ad was the first of its kind when it launched back in 2010 and critics greeted the milestone by claiming it encouraged abortions. The ASA, however, ruled in favour of the ad saying that it did not advocate one course of action over another.

7. Volkswagen Group
1,070 complaints
Upheld in part

The Matrix-style TV ad kicked up a storm when it was first shown in 2008. Complaints were directed at the level of violence on display and concerns about it sparking copycat behavior among children. The advertising regulator put a 9pm restriction on the “shocking” television campaign, which VW argued was ‘metaphorical rather than real.’ Sounds like they took the Matrix theme a little too seriously.

8. Yves St Laurent Beaute
948 complaints


Ten years before fronting her own cookery show The Delicious Miss Dahl, Sophie, the granddaughter of Roald, had already captured the imaginations of many Brits when she fronted a campaign for Yves St Laurent perfume brand Opium naked – naked – save for a pair of stilettos. The ad was banned for being sexually suggestive, “a textbook example of the importance of targeting when it comes to matters of offence”, according to the ASA.

9. Department of Energy and Climate Change
939 complaints
Upheld in part


Whoever thought climate change and nursery rhymes would cause such an outrage when combined? Not Ed Miliband. In 2010 the then energy secretary commissioned a TV and press campaign that used nursery rhymes to warn people about the dangers of climate change. The ASA banned the press ads for not using solid science and referred the TV spot to broadcast regulator Ofcom. That will teach them for overstating the threat from climate change.

10. Barnardo’s
840 complaints
Not Upheld

Barnardo’s never fail to shock with their ads and in 2008 this was no different. The children’s charity unleashed a hard-hitting TV campaign on a unsuspecting British public who were quick to rally against the unsettling scenes depicted. The advertising watchdog ruled against banning the adverts, concluding that the aim of the campaign justified the use of the strong imagery.



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