Irn Bru Advert: controversy in a can (and a can’t)

Soft Drinks Manufacturer A.G. Barr issued a formal apology last month after a series of complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) regarding its new Irn Bru advert. The advert depicts a man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. When asked by the girlfriend’s father when he will marry his daughter, the man replies with “I can’t right now”. The man then asks his girlfriend if they can leave. When she says “we can’t right now,” he replies with “don’t be a can’t, be a can”, offering a can of Irn Bru.

It is the advert’s main slogan that has provoked criticism, as “can’t” is evidently a controversial play on a similar-sounding, offensive word that also begins with the letter ‘c’. A spokesperson for the ASA has said that “the general nature of the complaints are that the ad is offensive and in poor taste and thus unsuitable to be shown before the watershed”. But when the advert is considered in the cultural context of Scotland, can it really be considered offensive?

The use of the ‘c-word’ is considered to be vulgar by many, but it must also be said that the word is deeply integrated into most Scottish dialects, and ultimately, it is not even said in the advert, but merely teased at. When the man says “can’t”, he does not direct it towards any of the other characters in a derogatory manner. Instead, he repeats it to draw the viewer’s attention to the comical wordplay itself. An A.G. Barr spokesperson said, “our advertising always plays up Irn Bru’s cheeky sense of humour and our latest campaign is no different”. The same “don’t be a can’t” word play was in fact used in the 2004 ‘Phenomenal Bobby’ Irn Bru advert, where objections were raised against the nudity of the streaking footballers. This latest advert, by comparison, even with the tongue-in-cheek wordplay, bears little that a viewer might find hurtful or upsetting to watch.

Another soft drink advert that received widespread backlash was the infamous Pepsi campaign starring Kendall Jenner, in which she ends a protest by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. Unlike the Irn Bru ad, the Pepsi ad is overtly insensitive: it carelessly undermines the hardships faced by people who protest by implying that a can of soda might have been a more effective tool for social justice then their actions. The Irn Bru ad is, in contrast, light-hearted and humorous, and despite its boldness, not offensive towards a group or a cause.

Similarly, the ASA removed a McDonalds advert in 2017 that showed a mother talking to her son about his dead father with whom he apparently has little in common with, before it is revealed that they both loved Fish-O-Filet burgers. The McDonalds ad, much like the Pepsi ad, was a poorly executed attempt at a heartfelt statement. The former can be seen trivializing grief by using fast food to explore emotional themes, and could also be distressing to viewers who might have experienced death in the family. Unlike the McDonalds ad however, the Irn Bru commercial does not address hefty themes with such triviality.

It can be easy to cross the line between cheeky and offensive inadvertently, but the Irn Bru advert really “can’t” be considered more than just a light-hearted joke.


Image: JoAnn Miller via Flickr

By Thea Nawal

Winner of the TV & Radio section's best writer award in March 2018.

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