ASA bans cancer campaign for “sexual” imagery and asterisked “fuck”

The UK ad regulator said BBH’s images could be viewed as explicit and that the word “fuck” is “so likely to offend that it should not generally be used”.

11 January 2024

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned a recent ad which attempts to address the “rarely-discussed” experience of sex among cancer patients and survivors. It has ruled out all use of the ad in its current form stating it was likely to cause “serious and widespread offence” and was “inappropriate” for OOH display where it could be seen by children.

While the regulator acknowledged that the advertising agency BBH didn’t explicitly use the word “fuck”, reference to the expletive was enough. The original ad featured the phrase: “Cancer won’t be the last thing that f*cks me”, alongside intimate photography from Katie Burdon. BBH said the point was to “stop people in their tracks” in its original press release.

The ASA team, who sound like they’d be a fun guest at a party, said: “We noted the context in which the word appeared, and that the full text stated ‘Cancer won’t be the last thing that f*cks me’ which we considered viewers would understand to be an allusion to a colloquial term for sexual intercourse.”

The campaign had the full weight of the creative community behind it. Leading illustrators Antony Burrill, Marylou Faure, Kris Andrew Small, Kelly Anna, Telegramme, Rude, Adam Hayes and Biff were all commissioned to create interpretations of the core campaign concept for social media. Partizan’s Sophia Ray directed three supporting short films showing women talking openly about their experiences with cancer and their sexuality.

BBH / Sophia Ray: GirlvsCancer: Cancer Won’t Be The Last Thing That F*cks Me (Copyright © BBH / GirlvsCancer)

ASA acknowledged that the OOH ads were meant to represent the “lived experience of women who had, or who had survived, cancer”. However, it considered that “fuck” was a word “so likely to offend” that it should not generally be used or alluded to in advertising. “We further considered that, within the context of the ad, the image was sufficiently sexually explicit to be likely to offend viewers.”

In a press release last October, BBH said: “Authenticity is at the heart of this campaign. All the women featured in both the OOH and films have, or have had, cancer. The film scripts were all written in close collaboration with the women, telling their stories in a way that felt real, raw and faithful to their experience.”

In the same release, Lauren Mahon, founder of GirlvsCancer, adds: “BBH’s ‘straight to it’ approach to this topic is certainly going to put it on the agenda and help to make it a less taboo part of cancer treatment and recovery.”

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BBH: GirlvsCancer: Cancer Won’t Be The Last Thing That F*cks Me, photography by Katie Burdon (Copyright © BBH / GirlvsCancer)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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