Summary:

According to the British advertising regulator, Amazon listings are ads. That’s why a listing for a rude greeting card has just resulted in a slap-down for the online retail giant.

Amazon Package
photo: Flickr / William Christiansen

Welcome yet again to the collision between the virtual and real worlds. Amazon has been slapped down by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a listing on Amazon.co.uk for a rude Christmas card. Although Amazon tried to claim that listings aren’t ads and shouldn’t be covered by the regulator, the regulator disagreed.

The card in question, from a company called SmellYourMum (SYM), read, “You’re a c*nt. Sorry, I meant to say ‘Merry Christmas,’” although without the asterisk I inserted (this is a family website, after all). This was shown in an image, with the text alongside it including the aforementioned asterisk.

SYM claimed the ad wasn’t offensive because of “the specific context of it appearing on a humorous card intended for close friends or family.” Amazon chimed in saying the card was “meant as a bit of light-hearted, irreverent fun,” but also went a step further, arguing that the ad in question wasn’t an ad at all, but a product listing.

Nonetheless, the ASA said it qualified as an ad and therefore fell under its remit. It said the use of the c-word was “so likely to offend that it should not be used at all in marketing communications even when it was relevant to the name of the product.”

Interestingly, part of the problem here is that Amazon doesn’t have an adults-only category for products carried on its site. SYM also noted that Amazon didn’t provide a way for it to censor the image, which showed the asterisk-free version of the card’s message (that said, the ASA said even the asterisked version was too offensive).

There are many products in Amazon’s UK store that would probably fall foul of the precedent here. So the question is, is this just excessive censorship, or does the regulator have a point here?

If a physical shop carried a poster for such a card in its window, there is little doubt that people would complain. And although the ASA said the offensive word should not even be used in marketing communications, I suspect that the card’s listing in a printed catalog would not have elicited such a complaint to the advertising regulator in the first place.

The ruling leaves Amazon in a difficult position, due to the breadth of third-party products carried in its store. It doesn’t help that the ruling also comes in the same month in which Amazon U.S. was found to be advertising algorithmically-generated but nonetheless appalling “Keep calm and rape a lot” T-shirts. If there’s much more of this kind of pressure, Amazon may have to be a bit more proactive about screening the products it carries, or at least adjust the way in which it advertises them.

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