CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - FCUK. Upsetting the ASA is a vital element of its ad strategy, as Rachel Gardner reports

It may have only been out of the advertising "sin-bin" less than six months, but already French Connection's controversial fcuk advertising campaign has landed it back in hot water with the Advertising Standards Authority.

This time it was the free distribution of condoms with T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Practice safe sex, go FCUK yourself" that was ruled offensive by the ASA, the industry's self-regulatory body with responsibility for all print and poster advertising.

But upsetting the ASA will probably be of little concern to the fashion retailer that has established a successful campaign at the expense of regularly falling foul of the system. Indeed, the ASA's history of run-ins with French Connection over its dyslexically challenged catchphrase spans more than half a decade.

The objections began flooding in soon after the launch of the brand back in 1997 and, to date, there has been a total of 535 individual complaints logged about 149 fcuk print and poster ads.

But it was not until April 2001 that things came to a head, when, following repeated warnings over the use of its sexually evocative catchphrase, the ASA revealed its teeth and banned a poster promoting the controversial website, fcukinkybugger.

There were 142 objections from members of the public, the highest number received for one such piece of work in 2001. And it was felt that French Connection had finally crossed the line of what that ASA considered to be "decent, honest and truthful".

Accordingly, the independent regulator imposed the highest sanctions within its power and condemned French Connection to what was to be two years of having its poster work pre-vetted.

But this seems to have been little more than a gentle rap on the knuckles.

Fcuk appears to be back to its old ways, calling into question to what extent the ASA can really protect the public against potentially offensive and inappropriate advertising.

The independent body may not want to be seen to stifle creativity, but even if that were its intention, it would arguably struggle to do so without any formal or legal powers.

It can't fine the advertiser or its agency and it has no responsibility for shop windows (where the fcuk tag is highly visible in high streets nationwide).

It can only move to get poster advertising pre-approved, while magazines can be directed to refuse to allocate further print space for a blacklisted advertiser.

Despite that, the ASA's director-general, Christopher Graham, has every faith in the abilities of the industry-funded body that was set up in 1962.

"The self-regulatory system works because of the determination by the advertising business, the advertising agencies and the media to maintain standards," he says.

"And at the end of the day the ASA is like the Canadian Mounted Police Force and the Mountie always gets his man. We have said if you use fcuk as a substitute for a sexual expletive in advertising then that's a breach of the code."

Graham won't speculate on what may happen if French Connection starts something that he describes as "unwelcome" again. Instead, he focuses on the belief that the situation has been transformed in recent years thanks to the ASA's copy advice and TBWA\London's "effective co-operation".

Garry Lace, who was the chief executive at TBWA at the time the agency's work was "sin-binned", admits he finds the whole issue rather frustrating.

"I just wish more articles were written about the fact that fcuk has been an amazing campaign and one of the most successful ever," he says.

Love it or loathe it, fcuk is undoubtedly here to stay, along with the trail of controversy that has become an inherent part of its advertising strategy.

Both French Connection and TBWA's chairman and creative director, Trevor Beattie, declined to comment.

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