John Lewis’ annual Christmas advert was referred to UK watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) Council last month, after the ASA reviewed the advert and decided its Council should be alerted to the content.

The advert, which shows a foster family getting ready to welcome a child from the care system into their home, caused an uproar on social media among children and parents with lived experience of the care system, and child removal. Care-experienced individuals said the advert had triggered them and caused them enormous distress. Others said the advert was in poor taste and exploited children’s pain for commercial gain.

The advert was referred to the ASA by a parent with experience of the care system, who also submitted a complaint to John Lewis. The parent has not received a reply from John Lewis.

The response from the ASA, which this site has seen, said the advert did not break any rules. However, the watchdog felt the points raised by the parent were serious enough to warrant a review by the ASA Council.

While the Council decided not to take action after reviewing the complaint, it contacted John Lewis to make them aware of the complaint it had received and to invite them to consider the contents of the complaint.

The ASA also told the parent that they would keep their complaint on file to use as part of their “proactive ‘intelligence gathering’ sweeps, where we analyse a range of information – including complaints made to us – to report on issues, even when they have not broken the advertising rules, that have caused concern.”

The ASA’s response is added in full below, with only identifying names and details removed:

“Thank you for contacting us with your concern. The complaints we receive are very important, because they help us to build a picture of the types of issues that affect both consumers and businesses.

Your complaint

We understand that you challenged whether the ad was likely to cause distress to those who had been affected by the system and whether it was likely to cause offence.

On this occasion, our initial assessment suggested that the ad may not have broken the rules but given the nature of the points you made, we decided to put your concerns to the independent ASA Council for their opinion. The ASA Council is the panel that ultimately decides whether advertisements are in line with the advertising rules. After careful consideration they have now decided that no further action should be taken this time. Please find more information below.

Our rules

Advertisements should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence or harm or be deemed irresponsible. We base our decisions on the content of the ad, when and where it appears, the audience and the type of product or service being advertised.

This article explains more about how we assess cases in this area

The ASA Council’s decision

The Council noted that the ad, which showed a foster carer to-be attempting to bond with the young girl by learning how to skateboard, was intended to shine a light on the foster system and ignite conversations about children living in care. Council appreciated that the emotive theme of the ad may have caused some, particularly those who have had personal experiences with the care system, to be upset by the content. However, they considered that the ad was a positive portrayal of this particular (fictional) family trying to make the foster child feel welcome, and it was not suggested that there are families who unfortunately, do not have positive experiences with the system. Council acknowledged that whilst some may have found the ad distasteful, they considered it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or undue distress to viewers.

Action taken

We have made the advertiser aware of the issue that was brought to our attention in case they wish to take on-board the information provided when creating their ads in the future.

Although we won’t take further action this time, we will keep a record of your complaint for reference in our future assessments. We will also take your complaint into account in our regular, proactive ‘intelligence gathering’ sweeps, where we analyse a range of information – including complaints made to us – to report on issues, even when they have not broken the advertising rules, that have caused concern.”

Many thanks to the parent who very kindly shared the ASA’s response with us.

You can access Researching Reform’s earlier article about the advert, which offers a full breakdown of events and context, here.

This is a screenshot of the ad – a live link has not been added as we know this may distress some of our readers.