These were the most controversial adverts of 2015

A strutting man in hot pants, graphic smoking posters and a booking good time all featured in the top ten.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 09 Mar 2016

One thing the British are renowned for, on par with the nation's love affair with tea, is complaining. The Consumer Action Monitor calculated the British made 52 million complaints last year about products and services (a 30% rise in two years). It has practically become a national pastime.

So it's not particularly surprising to find that only one of the top ten most complained about ads for 2015 was actually judged to have broken advertising rules, according to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). 

Do we really just like complaining for the sake of it? Considering 1,513 people were enraged enough to send in a complaint about’s strutting man in hot pants and high heels, MT suspects the answer might be yes. The dancing man was the most complained about advert of 2015. 

The lack of upheld complaints also arguably shows a fairly lacklustre year for controversial ads. Three of the top ten spots were taken by commercials after all, which replaced swear words with ‘booking’. 

This year’s most complained about ads were notably more subdued than last year’s though, probably due to a usual suspect having a fairly quiet 12 months. Shock advertising fan Paddy Power was nowhere to be seen in the top ten, after claiming the dubious top spot with a record 5,525 complaints last year with its ‘money back if he walks’ Oscar Pistorius ad.

Considering how well the Irish bookmaker did after its last controversial ad, MT wouldn't be surprised if there's another eyebrow-raiser in the works to take the top spot for 2016's list.

The top 10 most complained about adverts of 2015

1. – 1,513 complaints, not upheld.

2. – 683 complaints, not upheld.

Nearly 700 people genuinely thought this TV ad was likely to encourage bad language among children, due to the use of ‘booking’ in place of swear words. The ASA pointed out that the children who did pick up on the joke were unlikely to have learned bad language through the ad itself.

3. Paypal – 464 complaints, not upheld.

A festive ad that well and truly backfired after parents were horrified it ruined the magic of Christmas and revealed the ‘truth’ about Father Christmas. Kids in the ad were concerned their parents hadn’t been shopping for presents. 

4. – 407 complaints, not upheld.

5. Protein World – 380 complaints, not upheld.
Despite racking up a great deal of media and social attention, this didn’t actually get more than 380 official complaints. The ASA said the poster featuring a woman in a bikini couldn’t appear again in its current form due to its concerns about the health claims, but concluded it was unlikely to cause serious offence.

6. British Heart Foundation – 219 complaints, not upheld.
This ad showed a boy talking to his dad who had died from a heart attack. The ASA said it wasn’t scheduled around children’s programming and was deemed unlikely to cause widespread distress.

7. – 201 complaints, not upheld.

8. Department of Health – 181 complaints, not upheld.
A fairly gruesome ad got its point across when it showed a man rolling a cigarette with blood and flesh inside it. Unsurprisingly, the graphic nature caused people to take offence, but the ASA waved away complaints, saying the ads had an important health message.

9. Nicocigs – 145 complaints, not upheld.

Advertising e-cigarettes is a controversial one for some people, worried it could appeal to children. The ASA found the ad in question adhered to strict rules and wasn’t scheduled around programming likely to appeal to children.

10. Omega Pharma – 136 complaints, upheld.

The advert for a slimming aid was banned for showcasing an irresponsible approach to body image – a woman seeing a picture of her friend who had lost weight became upset about not being able to fit into her holiday clothes.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What's the most useful word in a leader’s vocabulary?

It's not ‘why’, says Razor CEO Jamie Hinton.

Lessons in brand strategy: Virgin Radio and The O2

For brands to move with the times, they need to know what makes them timeless,...

Why collaborations fail

Collaboration needn’t be a dirty word.

How redundancies affect culture

There are ways of preventing 'survivor syndrome' derailing your recovery.

What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where...

Should you downsize the office?

Many businesses are preparing for a 'hybrid' workplace.