You Can’t Do That On Television

Admit it, you’ve seen some pretty ridiculous television commercials in your lifetime, pushing the limits of what’s acceptable in advertising and sometimes failing. With some of these over the top surreal, stupid, or sexy commercials it can be difficult to tell where exactly Canada draws the line between acceptable and unacceptable content.

You’re probably asking yourself, “well, don’t we have guidelines in place for this sort of thing?” and the answer is: indeed, we do! It’s called The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (Code) and today we’re here to give you a little rundown on some of the big no-nos in advertising paired with a few examples of brands/companies that just pushed the limit a little too far.

First off, what exactly is The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, or the Code? Well, the Code sets the criteria for acceptable advertising in Canada, created by the advertising industry in 1963 to promote the professional practice of advertising.

Accuracy & Clarity:

To kick things off, the Code’s Number 1 rule is Accuracy & Clarity. This means, and on many levels, all advertisements must clearly state and represent what they are trying to sell; the first point in this rule stating, “a) Advertisements must not contain, or directly or by implication make, inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations”

Seems pretty simple, right? Unfortunately for Xbox, they made this exact no-no when trying to increase console sales.


“Funbox” – Xbox

As I’m sure you can tell, this commercial was pulled shortly after airing for basically advertising a product that did not exist in order to increase console awareness and sales. This number 1 rule also states that “c) All pertinent details of an advertisement must be clearly and understandably stated.” And there is nothing clearly nor understandably stated here… 

Comparative Advertising

It should come as no surprise that when advertising your own product, you can’t sling mud at competitors’ products, and skipping down to rule Number 6, Comparative Advertising, the Code clearly mentions, “Advertisements must not unfairly discredit, disparage or attack one or more products, services, advertisements, companies or entities, or exaggerate the nature or importance of competitive differences.” Though Scarlett Johansson states that she ‘has no regrets making this commercial’, it’s clear to see why exactly this ad received so much backlash before being pulled.


SodaStream Advertisement, Featuring Scarlett Johansson

Not only was there a large number of complaints about this ad being too sexy and demeaning, but it also lit up the internet and was eventually pulled for having Scarlett Johansson literally call out two competitor products (Coke and Pepsi) for being inferior to the Soda Stream.

Professional or Scientific Claim

Next stop! Professional or Scientific Claim. Unless the fact or science is true and has been proven, companies really shouldn’t be using professional or scientific claim to sell their product, and Rule Number 8 says exactly that. “Advertisements must not distort the true meaning of statements made by professionals or scientific authorities. Advertising claims must not imply that they have a scientific basis that they do not truly possess.”

Unfortunately for Science World in BC, they might have missed this in The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.


“Positively Painful” – Science World

Pulled shortly after airing, this ad received a lot of complaints from concerned parents that this ad advocated violence. Not only was this ad pulled for threatening safety, but it also makes a serious claim that ‘optimists feel less pain’. Parents and Lawyers everywhere feared that children would watch this ad and feel undefeatable in the face of danger (…or a bus) with a positive attitude as their shield and armor, so… it was banned and removed from TV. Better luck next time, Science World.


Any advertiser in their right mind does not want to advocate violence when promoting their product or associate their product with unsafe activity, because that’s a pretty huge lawsuit on your hands. So to help prevent advertisers from doing this, rule Number 10 of the Code is all about Safety. This rule says, “Advertisements must not, without reason justifiable on educational or social grounds, display a disregard for safety by depicting situations that might reasonably be interpreted as encouraging unsafe or dangerous practices or acts.”  And though this is a simple and clear statement to understand, one car commercial believed it would be best to convince their audience to drive aggressively.


“Don’t Go Quietly” – Ford

Mustang is basically telling their audience to buy their car, so that when they’ve had a frustrating/long day they can drive their new super-fast mustang aggressively around the city, to release some of that built up anger or tensions. So, unfortunately for Mustang and for the safety of everyone who would take this commercial too literally, it was pulled and left to rest in the archives of banned ads.

Advertising to Minors

Rule Number 13, Advertising to Minors, may seem pretty straight forward but it can also be a little tricky. It should come as no surprise that companies who sell products like alcohol and cigarettes cannot advertise to children or minors of any kind, and today many in their right mind wouldn’t even dream of it; but what makes this rule a little trick is that the ad cannot appeal, in any way, to children or minors, “Products prohibited from sale to minors must not be advertised in such a way as to appeal particularly to persons under legal age, and people featured in advertisements for such products must be, and clearly seen to be, adults under the law.”

You may be wondering, “Ok, what’s the difference” and Aldi would tell you that even though Kevin the Carrot was not intended to push their alcoholic beverages on children or minors, their commercial was banned for appealing too much to this young audience.

“Kevin the Carrot” – Aldi

When this advert begins, it seems like an ad for children until you realize it’s for an alcoholic beverage company, Aldi, and that nothing makes the holidays like family dinner pairs with your favourite Aldi beverage. Many concerned parents and audience members called in complaints shortly after these ads started airing, and for obvious reason.

Unacceptable Depictions & Portrayals

And last, but certainly not least—considering this is the one that brands get busted on a lot—is rule Number 14, Unacceptable Depictions & Portrayals. This last one says a lot, but it’s main points mention that no advert, in any way, can “(c) demean, denigrate or disparage one or more identifiable persons, group of persons, firms, organizations, industrial or commercial activities, professions, entities, products or services, or attempt to bring it or them into public contempt or ridicule” nor should ads “(d) undermine human dignity; or display obvious indifference to, or encourage, gratuitously and without merit, conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population.”

And though the Code, in its disclosure, says there are exceptions to this rule a lot of advertisers like to see just how far they can step over that line before having their ad banned. Take this commercial by Doritos, for example:

“Crumbs” – Doritos

This one didn’t see the light of day for long, and for obvious reasons. It practically advocates sexist ideals and condones sexual favours in exchange for good. It’s all around demeaning to the woman in this ad and offends the standards of public decency. And believe me when I say, there are plenty more commercials like that one out there.

With all of that said, you may be wondering how some of these ads even made it to TV in the first place and the truth is: even though these guidelines are in place, many adverts are flagged by the audience/viewer before even being reviewed by. Due to the number of companies pushing out an uncountable number of ads daily, there is no process in place where an Advertising Industry “overseer” initially reviews and approves and disapproves ads before they make it to the public eye.

That being said, every company and agency should have someone who does this… but things are often missed or ignored and sometimes the appeal of the risk outweighs the consequences of the broken rules.

Though we touch on a lot of the rules in The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, we didn’t cover all of them. Want to read through the rest, brush up on your advertising knowledge, or file a complaint? You can find the full version of the Code HERE!


Do you have a favourite banned commercial? Or know of a commercial on TV right now that you believe is controversial? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to watch more.