Lord's Prayer: What are the rules on religious adverts?

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Leading UK cinemas are refusing to screen a Church of England commercial reciting the Lord's Prayer. But what are the rules on religious advertising, asks Justin Parkinson.

It features the Archbishop of Canterbury, a grieving man, bodybuilders, a festival-goer, emergency workers, a cattle farmer, a choir, refugees, a commuter, schoolchildren and the audience at a baptism. They say the words of the Lord's Prayer.

Three of the UK's biggest cinema chains - Odeon, Cineworld and Vue - have banned the advert from being shown on the same bill as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, due to open just before Christmas.

DCM, the agency handling these matters for the cinemas, argues it could offend those of "differing faiths and no faith". The Church of England says this is "plain silly" and could have a "chilling effect" on free speech.

But the Lord's Prayer advert is freely available on the internet. In the UK, mainstream non-broadcast organisations and ad agencies typically agree to abide by the Committee of Advertising Practice's (CAP) rules. They cover online adverts, along with cinema, leaflet, email, newspaper and magazine advert. The guiding principle is that advertising shouldn't mislead, harm or offend.

The rules urge "particular care" to avoid causing offence, inciting hatred or promoting discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance "will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards", the CAP adds.

image copyrightPA
image copyrightPA

A self-governing body set up by the advertising industry, it cannot impose legal sanctions on companies. But it can urge providers of promotional space to restrict access to those who transgress.

Most mainstream advertisers would follow the guidelines but, for those that don't in the harder-to-police online sphere, search websites can be urged to remove paid-for adverts.

The Advertising Standards Authority, which ensures the CAP's rules are followed, has so far received no complaints about the Lord's Prayer advert and the dispute remains solely between the Church of England and the cinemas.

Religious-themed advertising often proves controversial. In 2009, two rival campaigns using the sides of buses to debate whether God exists prompted thousands of complaints. And in 2012 a campaign using the slogan "Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!" - employed by some evangelical groups - was banned by Transport for London.

The rules regarding religion on broadcast outlets are more detailed than those for non-broadcast formats. They include the stipulation that TV adverts mustn't "expound doctrines or beliefs" unless they are on "specialist" faith channels. Radio commercials can include such information if it's presented as the advertiser's opinion.

The Church of England says it has no plans to broadcast the Lord's Prayer advert, although clips of it have received a great deal of radio and TV airtime because of media coverage of the controversy. It adds that the online version has been clicked on around half a million times in 24 hours since the story broke.

"People tend to come into cinemas 20 minutes after the time the programme starts, so that they can avoid the adverts," says public relations consultant Peter Davies. "Already, it seems the audience far outweighs what the Church of England would have got if it had been shown in cinemas."

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