face mask, social distancing, adverts

Social distancing in ads ‘at this time’

17th August 2020

By Cass Coakley, Senior Communications Executive

We know getting your ads right during these unique times can be a challenge. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has published some guidance about Covid-19 related advertising back in March, but there isn’t any official guidance on social distancing for advertising yet.

To guide the industry through these changes and other recent developments, our training team is running three  ‘Vital Update’ sessions. The online sessions will focus on social distancing in ads, gender stereotyping, legal supers and HFSS food ads. Email the training team with any questions or to book a place here – spaces are limited.

Our position is, of course, ever-changing to echo government advice concerning social distancing and face coverings etc. We’re careful about issuing definitive advice because of this. Every ad is different and judged in its own right – we hope this blog gives some insight and direction when writing and filming your ads at the moment.

We frequently get queries around social distancing in ads and as always, but especially now, context is key. If an ad was filmed before the government rules came into play then things are likely to be fine. However, flaunting a lack of social distancing and not wearing face masks where appropriate in newly filmed ads may not be acceptable.

We think it’s unrealistic to insist on ads showing people wearing masks and social distancing in all circumstances. However, as mentioned above, if your ad is related to or mentions the current situation e.g “if you are shopping in these times” we would advise government guidelines are followed.

If your ad shows a group of people, for example, at a dinner table or socialising in another way, there is no reason for us to assume they aren’t from the accepted social bubbles with no requirement for social distancing. However, if your ad shows a large group of people, where it may be unlikely that they are from the same household socialising, this might not be ok. It goes without saying that these recently filmed ads should be abiding by the social distancing rules when filming too.

If an ad shows a situation that breaks the government guidelines, for example, a packed football stadium that was clearly filmed pre-pandemic, we wouldn’t usually require substantiation to prove this. However, if something in the ad contradicts this and suggests it’s ‘at this time’ or about Covid-19 safety then this wouldn’t be ok.

If ads promote safety and protection during the pandemic, we expect advertisers to follow government guidelines by showing social distancing, for example, anyone featured wearing a face covering. We will likely reject any ads that seem to show wilful breaking of the guidelines – talk to your Copy Executive if you’re unsure of what this looks like.

We expect the ASA to take a dim view of ads condoning, encouraging or demonstrating people breaking the government guidelines. The ASA has, unsurprisingly, taken a particularly strong line with any unproven claims about Covid-19 protection, safety and treatment so if this is the route you’re going down make sure that your substantiation is robust.

Advertisers using health claims need to take particular care when claiming the benefits of curing ‘symptoms’ even if it isn’t Covid-19 related. For example, if an ad for a vitamin supplement suggests that it will heighten someone’s defences – this may be seen to mislead people about their immunity to the virus unless the ailment is made obvious.

It’s also important not to get too caught up on the rules around social distancing and overlook the foundations of the advertising Code. During the pandemic, advertisers have found new and novel ways of producing eye-catching advertising, much of which has been user-generated. It’s as important now as any other time to ensure all provisions of the Code’s rules are observed – whether that’s around misleadingness, safety or offence.

But as ever, we need to assess ads individually and always remember, context is key – especially now.

How we can help:


For real-life ad examples, crucial watch-outs and more dos & don’ts around advertising at this time make sure to book a place on our sixty minutes ‘Vital Update’ Training sessions.

Copy Development

Like everything else related to Covid-19, advertising will fluctuate and change as time goes on. Our Copy Development service is particularly accommodating at this time. Seb (our Copy Development Manager) can help shape your concepts if you’re struggling to toe the line and keep your ad on the right side of the Code rules or the within the spirit of the government guidelines as they evolve.