The promotions arm of an international film company has come under fire over advertisements for a horror film that were scary enough to frighten motorists who glimpsed the billboards, and television watchers confronted with the ads.
The Advertising Standards Authority's complaints board has upheld a volley of complaints about three versions of The Exorcist: Believer film trailer television ads screened during general viewing times.
Universal Pictures has now also removed billboards advertising the film after complaints about them being "terrifying" prompted the decision by the authority complaints board.
The supernatural horror film, which has received mixed reviews - including one from Rolling Stone that said it could go "straight to hell", featured "possessed teens" and religious symbolism.
The billboard ads showed a close-up image of two girls with demonic eyes and bloody mouths, with one of the girls holding a crucifix.
Complainants said the use of religious symbolism could offend, and it was against an advertising rule to use a religious symbol in a degrading way.
"This image is terrifying and caused me distress when seeing it on a large billboard," one complainant said.
Another said it was "very frightening" for her daughter who was in the car with her at the time, and that the movie, which had an R18 rating, should not be advertised during the day at all.
Universal Pictures said in response that the film was in the genre of supernatural horror and contained numerous scenes that could be scary in nature and suspenseful.
"It would therefore be reasonable to justify that our advertising materials have been produced within the context of the product being advertised."
It said multiple religions were brought together in the film to overcome evil.
"The billboard depicts an [out-of-focus] cross. Whilst arguably Catholic we have not intentionally singled out one religion nor depicted it in a negative light."
The advertiser said it had gone to some lengths to ensure the artwork used was not excessive and had opted for a black-and-white image and stylised artwork to take away "realism".
It had also taken care not the place the billboards near schools or places of worship, but it had removed them and apologised for the distress caused, which the authority said settled the matter as far as the static advertising was concerned.
Complaints about three versions of the film trailer in television ads were upheld when the authority found they were screened at times in breach of the Advertising Code.
The board said it was not appropriate to show confronting ads for horror films during programmes that audiences were entitled to expect to be suitable for general viewing.
The trailer ad showed various scenes from the film including children being held captive and acting in a possessed and demonic manner, saying "God played a trick on you".
However, the board did not uphold complaints about the ads appearing at later times because it said sufficient additional safeguards were in place.
TVNZ confirmed to the board that the advertisement had an AO rating and played during the PG programme Down for Love and 1News Multi-Party Debate which was unclassified.
Audience data provided showed neither programme had a significant proportion of children viewing, the board said.
Sky TV confirmed the advertisement played during the ICC Cricket World Cup, an unclassified programme at 8:40pm, and provided Nielsen data that showed children were not a significant proportion of overall viewers.
However, following the complaint the broadcaster moved further bookings to after 9.30pm.
The board said the particular advertisement that had drawn the most complaints was likely to cause fear and distress to some consumers who would not be expecting horror content during a programme such as Down for Love.
One complainant described the ad as "graphic and terrifying", another described it as "disturbing" while others said it was gruesome and horrible.
The board agreed the "menacing nature" of the 30-second ad, which showed children held captive and speaking in demonic voices, required an extra level of targeting around the placement of horror film advertising within certain programme content.
The board said the advertisements that formed part of the decision that was upheld were not to be used again in their current form or placement.
The Exorcist: Believer is the sixth instalment in The Exorcist franchise and is a "loose sequel" to The Exorcist (1973).
* This story first appeared in the New Zealand Herald.