Jamie Rossouw
May 12, 2022

Should creatives consider phobias when creating ads?

While there are many phobias and those with them won't all react in the same way, it's worth taking them into account during the creative process.

Wieden & Kennedy London's ad for Malibu
Wieden & Kennedy London's ad for Malibu

Recently I found myself watching a rather enjoyable ad only to be turned off at the sight of a cluster of bumps. Not only has it left me feeling squeamish, but the sight of the brand just reminds me of that feeling.

And I'm glad I'm not the only one to experience this. According to recent research by PsychicWorld.com, trypophobia is the most common phobia in the UK, and the term receives an average of 120,000 Google searches per month.

Rather than exuding fear itself, trypophobia is more of an aversion to the sight of irregular patterns or clusters of small holes and bumps.

The ad in question is the latest 90 second film by coconut rum liqueur Malibu – “Do Whatever Tastes Good” – created by Wieden & Kennedy London.

The campaign embodies summer vibes and features a textured horse made from coconuts. In theory it sounds like a cool idea, but when executed, showed a round bumpy surface that will undoubtedly make people with trypophobia feel uneasy.

After speaking with two creatives from different agencies, it seems that this might not have been a topic of conversation when making this ad.

Both stated that they’ve never taken phobias into account during a creative process, but will focus on more sensitive subjects such as diversity.

'Phobias not part of the process'

“It’s not something I really ever think about,” Ben Da Costa, chief creative officer at Now, says.

“We're very sensitive around a lot of subjects: making sure there's clear diversity; you’re not offending anyone, et cetera, but no-one's ever thinking about phobias,” he stated.

Similarly, Stu Outhwaite, chief creative officer at Creature, explains that creatives do consider sensitive subjects, but: “We tend to mainly concern ourselves with bigger themes and, perhaps wrongly, we don't really take into account phobias.”

Both note that it would be hard to mitigate against all phobias, but certainly provides food for thought.

Outhwaite explains that it would need to be on a case-by-case basis and “the onus should definitely be on us if we are going to lose customers as a result of it”.

He says the job of an ad agency is "ultimately to appeal to people. If things are going to repel them, then we should certainly at least consider it.”

Da Costa agrees, stating that it's important to be aware and then make an informed choice.


The Advertising Standards Authority is unlikely to rule against ads on the basis that it contains imagery related to phobias.

In 2019, the ASA released an article about phobia-related imagery in advertising, which acknolwedges it has received complaints about ads that trigger phobias from those who suffer from them.

However, rulings during this time were few and far between. The ASA published two investigations in 2015 surrounding clown-related complaints.

One had a clown on a poster and accumulated 23 complaints, which was upheld by the authority. Another ad, which featured a bus bearing the head of a scruffy, smiling clown, was not upheld despite receiving 74 complaints.

The latter investigation referred directly to coulrophobia, but the ASA ruled this out, because the phobia itself was unlikely to breach the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code).

In conclusion, It appears the onus is on the agency and brand to be mindful of including anything that could potentially set off people with phobias.

The creative process is just that – all about creativity. However, it would be in the interest of viewers and potential consumers to add the question "how does this ad affect people who suffer from phobias?” to the drawing board.

Campaign UK

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