May 2, 2014

Book advertisement featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman is banned by the UK’s Advertising Standard’s Authority


A book advertisement that referred to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was too provocative for the UK, thereby proving the book's point.

A book advertisement that referred to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was too provocative for the UK, thereby proving the book’s point.

Of all the ads that have offended my sensibilities (I’m looking at you, Carl’s Jr.), I don’t remember many of them being banned, and I certainly don’t remember any of them being for a book. Sure, I may have wondered about the wisdom of selling cars by making your pitchman look like a serial killer, or marveled at the idea that somebody thought I’d buy a vacuum because a reanimated Fred Astaire danced with it, but book advertisements are typically so quiet, and let’s face it, unoriginal, that they barely raise an eyebrow.

But the UK has the Advertising Standards Authority, and they’ve responded to three (three!) complaints about an ad for Alain de Botton‘s new book, The News: A User’s Manual. According to The Guardian, the ad, which ran in the London Evening Standard, went out immediately following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and was so offensive that not only was the ad banned, it led to the order that future advertisements “not cause serious or widespread offense by referring to those who were dead.”

Ogilvy and Mather, who created the ad and released it just days after Hoffman’s death, wanted to “draw upon news stories of the day to raise the question of why readers took notice of certain articles that had no direct bearing on their lives over other ones that did.The Guardian explains that the book, meant to illumninate how people digest the news, was formatted to look like a news article.

Part of the advertisement read: “You’re deeply saddened by the death of this beloved actor. You’re quick to point out your love for his performance in Magnolia and Capote. But the dark truth is that your interest in this story doesn’t end there: you also crave the gritty details of his demise …”

The advert went on to give details of the circumstances in which Hoffman was found dead and how the reader might react to them.

“This knowledge is so satisfying that you’ve barely noticed the article about a proposed sculpture trail in east London. Why are you more concerned about an actor’s death than an arts project that will transform your city’s cultural life?”

The ASA found that the level of detail in the ad would likely “cause serious offence to some” and could no longer appear without significant changes. (The offending detail seems to be that Hoffman was found with a needle in his arm, a fact that was in almost every news article about the sad event.) Even though the ASA acknowledged that the ad “reflected the nature of the advertised product,” they predicted that using Hoffman’s death to sell a book would cause “serious offence to some.” They went on to issue their pronouncement that future ads “not cause serious or widespread offence by referring to those who were dead.”

To recap, the advertisement wasn’t found to be misleading, or promoting a dangerous product, or explicit; the problem with the book’s advertisement is that it referred to a dead person. It’s a perfectly ironic twist that the book is about how people consume the news, and pay the most attention to the things that affect their lives the least.

For their part, the London Evening Standard responded by saying that the “level of detail given about Hoffman’s death was not disproportionate” and perhaps those people that complained were made uncomfortable by “being confronted by the human but usually hidden thought processes of our fascination with celebrity stories.”

Somebody should send those three complainants a copy of de Botton’s book.


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.