Humanists UK condemns Advertising Standards Authority’s latest anti-blasphemy ruling

11 January, 2023

Pictured: Demi Lovato, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

A poster promoting Demi Lovato’s latest album has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in part because it was ‘likely to cause offence to Christians’. Humanists UK has condemned this aspect of the ruling as a de facto ban on blasphemy.

Lovato’s poster had been displayed at only six locations across London last summer before being taken down four days later. It depicted the clearly recognisable singer ‘in a bondage-style outfit whilst lying on a large, cushioned crucifix’, along with the name of the album, ‘HOLY FVCK’.

The ASA is the self-regulator of almost all advertising space in the UK. It maintains a Code on Advertising Practice, and routinely bans adverts that don’t comply with the Code. In this case, complaints were made to the ASA about the poster on two grounds – that the advertisement would cause ‘serious or widespread offence’ and that it was ‘irresponsibly placed where children could see it.’ The first ground was assessed both because of the rude language used and on the basis of whether it would cause ‘religious offence’. In the latter case, this is because the Code says ‘Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: …religion or belief’.

Both grounds were upheld by the ASA. While the poster could have reasonably been banned solely for containing language that was easily recognisable as alluding to a swear word, and for its inappropriateness for children, Humanists UK criticises the ASA also banning the image for being religiously offensive.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented: 

‘Regardless of what anyone may think of the language used in Lovato’s advert, or its appropriateness for children, religious offence should never be grounds to ban an advert. It’s been fifteen years since anti-blasphemy laws in England and Wales were repealed, yet since then the ASA has continued to enforce a de facto ban on blasphemy by banning adverts for this reason. This is an unacceptable stifling of the right to freedom of expression.’

A history of banning religiously offensive adverts

This is the latest of a number of anti-blasphemy rulings made by the ASA. In 2008, ghd hair straightener adverts were deemed offensive under the broadcasting code for using the tagline ‘thy will be done’ juxtaposed with pictures of women. In 2009-2010, the ASA banned three adverts by ice cream company Antonio Federici for depicting a priest and a nun about to kiss, two priests about to kiss, and a pregnant nun, which were deemed to be ‘mocking the beliefs of Roman Catholics and was therefore likely to cause serious offence to some readers.’ In 2011, a Phones 4 U advert featuring a drawing of the Buddy Christ from the movie Dogma and using the phrase ‘miraculous deals’ during Easter were said to be ‘disrespectful to the Christian faith and were likely to cause serious offence, particularly to Christians.’

In 2014, the ASA deemed offensive a Sporting Index advert about placing bets during that summer’s World Cup in Brazil because a picture of Christ the Redeemer and a bikini-clad woman, ‘depicted the person of Jesus in a context at odds with commonly held beliefs about the nature of Christ.’ This advertisement broke rules linking gambling to sex so a finding of ‘religious offence’ was unnecessary. Even more alarming, in 2016, the ASA deemed offensive a Boylesports Gaming advert that ran during Easter and featured a bleeding hand nailed to a cross. The ASA found that the image was ‘a particularly sacred image for Christians, were likely to cause serious offence to some recipients’ yet remained entirely silent on the graphic depiction of violence.


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Sign our petition to stop banning criticism of religion.

Read more about our work on freedom of expression in advertising.

Read the ASA’s ruling.

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