The 10 most-complained about UK adverts of 2016 have been revealed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The year saw thousands contact the watchdog to complain that their television was being filled with sexual innuendo, homophobia, pro-LGBT messages and cruelty to animals.
MoneySupermarket.com dominated the overall list, with three of its adverts featuring in the top five – including the number-one spot for the second year running.
The price comparison website's ad campaigns – these days typically featuring men wearing tight shorts and high heels – were accused of being overtly sexual, unsuitable for children, homophobic and even encouraging hate crimes.
Together, the three ads gave rise to almost 2,500 complaints to the ASA.
The next-highest number of complaints – an advert for online dating website Match.com featuring two lesbians kissing – resulted in almost 900 offended viewers claiming it was "sexually explicit" and "inappropriately scheduled".
Betting site Paddy Power, meanwhile, saw two of its adverts make the top 10. One re-run ad from 2010 featured blind footballers accidentally kicking a cat instead of a ball, drawing 450 complaints from viewers who claimed it encouraged cruelty to animals and was offensive to blind people.
Another ad for the betting site jokingly showed a group of Scottish people singing about the fact that they didn't mind they hadn't qualified for the summer's UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament, because they could still bet on England to lose in it. Viewers said the ad was racist, with some believing it encouraged anti-English views and others claiming the stereotypes of Scottish people seen in the ad was offensive.
The government also saw one of its own adverts featured in the ASA's top 10 list for 2016. The Home Office's 'Disrespect Nobody' campaign, intended to help inform young people about domestic abuse, drew 216 complaints, with viewers claiming the TV ad was sexist and implied that only men engaged in abuse.
Other top-10 entrants for 2016 include restaurant chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen's series of posters promoting the eating of meat, and a TV ad for Maltesers chocolates showing a disabled woman speak about accidentally giving hand relief to her boyfriend during an involuntary "spasm".
Despite all adverts in the top 10 drawing almost 5,000 complaints combined, none were banned after the ASA found that they did not breach advertising rules.
ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: "The ads that attract the highest number of complaints are often not the ones that need banning. Our action leads to thousands of ads being amended or withdrawn each year, mostly for being misleading, but there wasn't one misleading ad in the Top 10.
"In the list there are a number of ads, which while advertising their product or service, have also sought to present a positive statement about diversity but were in fact seen by some as doing the opposite. In all those cases, we thought people generally would see the ads in a positive light and that the boundary between bad taste and serious or widespread offence had been navigated well enough, often through using sensible scheduling restrictions.
"Advertising that pushes the boundaries invariably lands better with some people than others. But last year we thought the ads that attracted the largest number of complaints fell the right side of the line."
The full top 10 list can be found below.
1. Moneysupermarket.com (1,063 complaints – not upheld)
This TV ad for price-comparison website MoneySupermarket featured 'Gary the Bodyguard' dressed in a suit and sunglasses, dancing at a rally. Offended viewers complained Gary's dance moves were "overtly sexual and not suitable to be seen by children".
The ASA said: "While acknowledging some viewers may have found the dance moves distasteful, we judged the ad wouldn't cause serious or widespread offence to viewers and the ad was generally likely to be interpreted in a humorous manner."
2. Moneysupermarket.com (898 complaints – not upheld)
MoneySupermarket's 'Epic Squads' TV ad showed a character, Dave, dressed in suit jacket, denim shorts and high heels, and another character, Colin, dressed in a fluorescent jacket and hard hat.
They were joined by other men dressed in the same clothes and engaged in a dance-off.
Similar to the complaints the company received about its other adverts, almost 900 viewers said the the ad was "offensive and overtly sexual". But some also claimed the ad could be seen to be "homophobic" and could even "encourage hate crimes".
The ASA said: "Although the ad would no doubt be seen as distasteful by some, we concluded that, given the overall content and tone, it was unlikely to provoke serious or widespread offence or to be seen as condoning or encouraging harmful discriminatory behaviour in real life."
3. Match.com (896 complaints – not upheld)
This TV ad for online dating service Match.com showed a women getting home from work to her female partner, who removed her top and passionately kissed her.
It drew almost 900 complaints from people who claimed the ad was "sexually explicit" and "inappropriately scheduled".
The ASA said: "We judged the ad would not cause serious or widespread offence and were satisfied that the scheduling restriction it had been given prevented it being shown in or around dedicated children's programmes or those with particular appeal to children."
4. Moneysupermarket.com (530 complaints – not upheld)
Another TV ad for MoneySupermarket – this time seeing characters Dave and Colin alone in an underground car park performing dance moves in a bid to out-do each other. All the complainants said the ad was "overtly sexual", while a high proportion also claimed it was offensive because it showed what they perceived to be two homosexuals together.
The ASA said: "While always taking into account the fact some people may find the ad distasteful, we ruled the ad did not break the rules as the majority of viewers would interpret the scenes as light-hearted and humorous."
5. Paddy Power (450 complaints – not upheld)
This ad featuring two teams of blindfolded men playing football was first shown in 2010 when it generated over 1,000 complaints and become the most complained-about advert for that year. Viewers then, and last year when the ad was re-run, objected to the scene where it was suggested that a man had kicked a cat that had run on to the pitch after mistaking it for the ball.
Complainants said the ad was harmful as it "might encourage cruelty to animals" and that is was "offensive to blind people".
The ASA said: "In our investigation in 2010, we judged the ad had not broken the rules. We noted the ad didn't show any of the footballers making direct contact with the cat and the animal was shown unharmed at the end of the ad.
"We also noted the ad was prohibited from appearing in and around children's programmes. Furthermore the ad featured, and was supported by, members of the England Blind Football Team.
"We concluded that the majority of viewers would see the ad as humorous and not humiliating or undermining to blind people. As we had already investigated the ad in 2010, we did not re-investigate it in 2016."
6. Smart Energy (253 complaints – not upheld)
Smart Energy's ad showed cartoon characters Gaz and Leccy in a number of scenarios within a house, including them being burnt in a toaster, hit across the room with a spatula, cooked in a microwave and electrocuted by the television set. Some 253 people complained the ad was "excessively violent" and that it "failed to make clear the dangers of gas and electrical devices, particularly to children who might see the ad".
The ASA said: "We did not uphold the complaints, judging the cartoon nature of the ad made it clear the scenarios were surreal and fantastical. We also noted the voiceover in the ad stated the need for Gaz and Leccy to be controlled."
7. Paddy Power (220 complaints – not upheld)
This TV ad for Paddy Power showed a group of Scottish people singing about the fact they didn't mind their team hadn't qualified for the summer's Euro 2016 football tournament, because they could still bet on England to lose in it. Complainants said the ad was racist, with some believing it encouraged anti-English views while others believed the stereotypes of Scottish people seen in the ad were offensive.
The ASA said: "We acknowledged that some viewers might have found the sentiment of the ad to be unkind, but as a whole it would generally be understood to be a light-hearted and humorous reflection of the friendly sporting rivalry between England and Scotland.
"We ruled the stereotypical features used to describe and depict the Scottish people in the ad would largely be understood to be a celebration of Scottish culture rather than malicious mocking."
8. Home Office (216 complaints – not upheld)
Under the then-Home Secretary Theresa May, the Home Office last year launched its 'Disrespect Nobody' campaign to help inform young people about domestic abuse. Its TV ad, which featured various scenarios deemed unacceptable in a relationship, prompted complaints that the ad was sexist.
Complainants said it implied only men engaged in abusive behaviours and that it might prevent male victims of domestic abuse from seeking help.
Viewers particularly objected to the language used in the ad to describe things in a relationship that could be a sign of domestic abuse. This included: "If you're checking your girlfriend's phone"; "If your boyfriend is telling you how to dress" and "If you turn to violence when your girlfriend disagrees with you".
The ASA said: "We did not uphold the complaints as there were no direct claims made in the ad which related to the likelihood of boys or men in particular being abusive. The ad also contained some more gender-neutral scenarios and encouraged viewers to search for more information about the campaign online, where resources were also available for boys being abused by girls and for those who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."
9. Gourmet Burger Kitchen (195 complaints – not upheld)
A series of ads for restaurant chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) saw almost 200 complain they were offensive to vegetarians and vegans. The ads featured phrases such as: "You'll always remember when you gave up being a vegetarian", "Anyone fancy a nice, juicy, 6oz lettuce?", "Resistance is futile", "Burger is the new quinoa" and "They eat grass so you don't have to" with a picture of a cow.
GBK withdrew three of the adverts following the complaints, with the two ads that mentioned lettuce and quinoa remaining in the promotional campaign.
The ASA said: "We took no further action on these two ads as we considered they were likely to be interpreted by most viewers as general references to ingredient and food-trend preferences rather than broader comments on vegetarianism, veganism or other beliefs."
10. Mars Chocolate UK Ltd t/a Maltesers (151 complaints – not upheld)
A Maltesers ad showed a woman in a wheelchair discussing her new boyfriend with two of her friends while enjoying packs of the chocolate. She mentions how her disability caused her to have a spasm during a romantic encounter, which her boyfriend 'misinterpreted' as hand relief.
Offended viewers said the ad was "overly sexual" and was "offensive to disabled people".
The ASA said: "We ruled the women's conversation was likely to be seen as light-hearted and the allusion to a sexual act, although understandably distasteful to some, would not cause serious or widespread offence to viewers in general.
"We also noted the ad had a post-9pm restriction to prevent children from seeing it, and that it was likely to be seen as championing diversity and disability, not ridiculing it."