British vs. American Ads: Which TV Commercials Make You Blush?


We didn’t know this was a “problem” until seeing this advert. (Charmin)

At the risk of turning this into a “Which is better?” debate, it’s fair to say that there’s quite a difference between British and American TV ads. What one viewing audience finds acceptable is often highly inappropriate to the other and I find myself saying “I can’t believe they just showed that” on both sides of the Pond.

British ads definitely push the envelope when it comes to suggestive and titillating content. After much complaining and gnashing of teeth by a section of the British viewing public, this Iron Bru TV ad was deemed suitable for family viewing by the Advertising and Standards Authority (ASA). For Brits, it wasn’t so much the humongous boobs bursting out of a low cut sweater, but the possibility of an inappropriate relationship between mother and son (or his friends) that was all too much.

It is a little racy though isn’t it? Or have I been in the States too long? Still, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t fly here.

Lest I give the impression that the U.K. has no standards whatsoever, the ASA drew the line at Keira Knightly’s Chanel ad and banned it from being aired during children’s programming. Citing sexual tension between her character and the photographer (which you can find at about 1:50 minutes in), the ad was deemed “unsuitable for young children”. I should bally well think so. Harrumph!

While there’s no doubt that most American ads would make the Puritan founders proud, there are some that, while not showing much in the way of human flesh, are still enough to make this Brit blush. They’re not so much suggestive as downright Eeeuuuwww-inspiring.

Picture the scene: I have successfully regained control of the remote after my ten year old’s allotted viewing time, switched over to the 5:30 pm national news and resigned myself to cooking dinner. The boy is now playing Lego on the floor and all is well with the world.

But I have screwed up. Big time. The remote has been carelessly placed on the arm of the chair instead of within arm’s reach. Not quite two minutes elapse before the boy lifts his innocent face and asks “Mom, what’s erectile dysfunction?” (I think I remember saying “It’s when your willy doesn’t work properly,” which seemed to be an adequate response, despite the swearing, choking and muttering that accompanied it.)

You know the ads I’m talking about? Impossibly slim, good-looking and unabashedly horny retirees, over-dubbed by the male in the picture talking ad nauseam (or so it seems when you’re diving for the remote) about “sexual performance,” “intimacy problems” and all manner of overly-personal topics.

(Be warned Brits, there is no “watershed” on American TV. You can be quietly watching the 5:30 pm local news one minute and learning about four-hour erections the next.)

Another ad campaign I’m always surprised to see on American TV features the Charmin’ bear family — mammals that not only use toilet paper, but are left with teeny pieces of it stuck to their bums. Eeuuww. The ad tagline is “no one likes a bathroom tissue that leaves pieces behind.” Okay, they’re cartoon bears, but we are still subjected to close-ups of the little bear’s still-dirty bottom, while Mother bear cleans him up with a dustpan and brush. What the what? Where is the outrage, Americans?

What seemed to push British viewers entirely over the edge was a 2005 ad for Kentucky Chicken Zingers. Apparently, back in the day, it was the most complained about TV ad of all time in the U.K. Over one thousand furious parents expressed anger and concern about the negative effect it would undoubtedly have on their children.

“What,” you might ask, “could the ad possibly be showing?” Boobs, pornography, excessive swearing? Were young children destined for a life of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll after being exposed to this iniquity? Much, much worse. It went against everything a proud Brit stands for. Good manners. (Cue rousing choruses of “Rule, Britannia.”)

A bunch of call center workers eating KFC — and talking with their mouths full.

As I said, it’s all about standards.

What commercials make you blush? 

See also:
A British Soccer Fan on the Unique Appeal of the NFL
Eight Reasons Brits Move to America
11 TV Shows That Explain American Culture (for a British Expat)


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Jenn

    Those Charmin commercials make me cringe every time they come on the TV! Eww! I’ve never seen the KFC commercial before but that is horrid…that commercial would never make me want to eat at KFC.

  • Angie Poole

    The KFC commercial is truly bad. If you have to subtitle your ad because of unintelligible pronunciation, you’re doing it wrong. It’s only in slightly poorer taste than the old “If it doesn’t get all over the place it doesn’t belong in your face” ads, though. If it has to be covered in so many condiments to taste decent, the overall food quality must be terrible.

    I think feminine product ads are worse than Charmin.

  • gn

    The only good part of American commercials is the side-effects warnings on the ads for prescription drugs. Here’s a classic ad that seems to consist almost entirely of warnings for side-effects!

    • Toni Hargis

      I remember one of my kids, aged about 7 at the time, said – I think I’d rather have the illness than the side effects.” Out of the mouths of babes…..

    • Lara

      I always liked the ones with “And possibly sudden death” tagged on at the end.

      • PauperPrincess

        Followed by the commercial for the law firm to call in case you have “sudden death”.

  • Lara

    The Charmin ads are awful. There’s one where the little one is wearing underpants…but his parents are not. What is going on in that home!
    But the worst commercials are the ones that use toothpaste as an example, and wipe up the toothpaste with their brand and the competitor’s. I really, really don’t need a visual.

  • CO2VA

    The Irn Bru ad is hysterical, but I get the humour. I would put it in the same category as “naughty” seaside postcards.

  • IamGillian

    There’s an ad running on US TV now showing a British woman stopping Americans on the street to ask them if they would use her product … a rinsing add on for the loo. Matches the Charmin Bears in tastelessness any time.

  • pippitypup

    I HATE the Charmin bears. I won’t buy any of their products. That KFC ad is simply stupid. And Keira Knightly? BORING.