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Rivers Church / E Gerber / 18804

Ruling of the : ASA Directorate
In the matter between:
Eugene Gerber Complainant(s)/Appellant(s)
Rivers Church Respondent

06 Jan 2012

Mr Gerber lodged a consumer complaint against a billboard for River’s Church located on its premises in Sandton.

The billboard features an image of a man holding his hands against the temples of his face. The following quote “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident – Francis Thompson” appears underneath.

In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid.

In light of the complaint Clause 1 of Section II (Offensive advertising) of the Code was taken into account.

The respondent submitted that the complained off advertisement is based on Psalm 14v and Psalm 53v1, which says “only foolish say in their hearts there is no God.” The implication of the image was meant to convey that if someone does not believe in God, then they are not wise.

It quoted the famous English poet Francis Thompson thinking that most people would be familiar with his work and would possibly respect his comment.

The ASA Directorate considered all the relevant documentation submitted by the respective parties.

Clause 1 of Section II states, inter alia, “No advertising may offend against good taste or decency or be offensive to public or sectoral values and sensitivities, unless the advertising is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom”.

The complainant is offended by the wording and imagery used on the billboard.

The respondent submitted that it used the quote by a famous poet (Francis Thompson) who wrote “The hound of heaven”. It assumed that most people would be familiar with his work and would respect his comment.

The Directorate recognises that offence, particularly religious offence is difficult to determine, because it is by definition an emotive issue. When considering such matters, the Directorate is guided by previous decisions dealing with such issues.

In Futuregrowth / PK Murphy & Another / 1030 (30 June 2005) the Directorate ruled, “The hypothetical reasonable consumer would understand that these advertisements are not making literal claims and are not commenting on the religious beliefs and values of the depicted characters.”

In Playstation "Christian Hymn" / B Andre / 12740 (15 April 2009), the Directorate dismissed an objection against the use of a variation of the song “His got the whole world in His hands” on the basis that “…this commercial does not comment on any aspect of religion, much less attack or belittle it. The mere fact that the commercial features a phrase or depicts a scenario often heard or seen in a religious context does not imply that it is intrinsically offensive to any particular religion”.

This illustrates that when advertising with somewhat of a religious connotation or connection does not pass comment or judgement, or belittles a basic belief or tenet of any specific religion or belief system, it would not likely be regarded as offensive to that particular religion.

Conversely, in DJ Hamman / Unite 180 / 14959 (21 May 2010), the Advertising Standards Committee (The ASC) considered a complaint against a billboard that stated “The fool says in his heart there is no God Psalm 14:1”. The complainant submitted that the billboard was offensive to atheists as they were being called “fools”. The ASC said “All human beings enjoy human dignity, including atheists. It is not reasonable and justifiable in an open and society based on dignity, equality and freedom to propagate publicly, statements that undermine their human dignity, as an identifiable sector of the population.” The ASC ruled that to be called a fool is offensive and that the billboard would be offensive to the values and sensitivities of atheists. On this basis the complaint was upheld.

Similarly, in Post Office / TT Mahanyele / 18484 (19 October 2011), the Directorate upheld an objection against a commercial which it felt was “… reducing the potential clairvoyant perception devotees have of Sangomas to something akin to slight-of-hand trickery”.

From this it becomes apparent that the proverbial line is drawn when advertising propagates statements that undermine the dignity and constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious beliefs of any identifiable sector of society.

In keeping with this approach, and following in particular that of the ASC in the Unite 180 matter, the Directorate notes that the respondent has made use of a quote “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident” by Francis Thompson, however this does not justify its use in this context.

The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines an accident as, inter alia, “An unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.”

The quote therefore suggests that atheists believe that their existence is a result of an unforeseen and unplanned event. The use of the word believe further strengthens this communication.

Furthermore, the visuals of a man holding the sides of his empty head suggest that atheists are “empty headed” or lack intelligence, presumably as a result of the above “belief” communicated. This is something that would likely offend all atheists in a manner that the Code seeks to prevent.

While the Directorate accepts that the respondent is entitled to promote its view and commentary to all who choose to attend its services, it cannot ignore the fact that the respondent has chosen to publically proclaim its viewpoint.

In Glo Mobi Ring Tones / Mr Kimmie & Another / 11731 (26 September 2008), the Directorate made the following point:

“However, this context cannot be applied to the commercial. The commercial may be seen by people who do not share the same point of view and who do not take their belief lightly. By the commercial being flighted, viewers who chose not to attend the comedy sessions are offended in their own homes without being afforded the opportunity to choose not to listen to the joke or references”.

The same approach applies here.

Based on the above, the Directorate is satisfied that this commercial would likely cause offence to people who regard themselves as Atheists, and is therefore in contravention of Clause 1 of Section II of the Code.

The respondent is required to:

  • Withdraw the advertising in its current format;

  • The process of withdrawing the advertising must be actioned with immediate effect;

  • The process of withdrawing the advertising must be completed within the deadlines stipulated by Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide, and

  • The advertising may not be used again in this format in future.

The complaint is upheld.


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