ITV has sparked outrage among viewers for airing an advert for the Church of Scientology in a prime-time slot.
The broadcaster was accused of allowing the controversial group – which has been branded a ‘cult’ – to target vulnerable people after it showed its advert following its hit soap Coronation Street.
It sparked complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which assessed whether they were serious enough to launch an investigation into banning the commercial from air.
However, as the advert does not breach any of its regulations, the ASA admitted it is powerless to act, despite public anger.
ITV broadcast the 29-second clip at around 7.30pm on Monday evening, between primetime shows Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
Depicting a montage of smiling people and imposing buildings with a voiceover, it encourages viewers to ‘Imagine science and religion connecting’.
It ends with the statement: ‘Imagine everything you have ever imagined is possible’ as the Scientology website is displayed on the screen.
Many viewers were astonished to see the advert on national TV.
Writing on Twitter, pensioner Geoffrey Pearson said: ‘S***, I’ve just seen a Scientology Advert on ITV. How can we possibly allow those nutters to advertise on TV. Who next, Al Qaeda?’
Jonathan Harvey added: ‘An advert for Scientology in the Corrie ad break. Heavens.’
Jen Williams said: ‘Just saw a Scientology advert. Luckily there was nothing on hand to throw at the telly at the time.’
Some viewers have now set up a campaign on grassroots campaigning site Change.org, demanding that the ASA stops the advert from being shown again.
The petition, which currently has 30 supporters, states: ‘It would be comical if its implications weren’t so potentially harmful. I hope most intelligent people that watch this advert will dismiss it as ludicrous.’
However, the director of Mediawatch UK Vivienne Pattison said that although she understands the concerns people have about the Scientology advert, there is little that can be done to stop it.
She said: ‘There aren’t actually any rules saying you can or can’t advertise religion, which is how they have managed to get away with it.
'The only rules that mention religion are that you shouldn’t have adverts that are likely to offend somebody.
‘The problem is that the ASA are going according with their code and there’s nothing in there saying you can or cannot advertise religion.
'If you say something that is patently untrue then they can do something but, a lot of the time, how can you say whether it is or is not? I think it’s really difficult.’
Set up in 1952 by US science-fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has become known for celebrity adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
The religion, which is based around the idea that humans are ‘immortal beings’ who have forgotten their true nature, has been at the centre of a number of controversies.
It has often been branded a cult although church leaders have repeatedly denied it brainwashes adherents.
In February, the Supreme Court ruled that the Church of Scientology in London was a place of ‘religious worship’ and so could hold weddings.
The Scientology advert was vetted in March by Clearcast, the official body in charge of making sure adverts do not breach broadcasting codes before they are shown to the public.
It is thought to have been shown a handful of times on ITV since then, with Monday’s screening the latest.
A spokeswoman for the organisation said it was not the first Scientology advert they have cleared for UK broadcast in recent years, and insisted there was no reason to reject the Church’s application.
Similar Scientology adverts have been screened on ITV over the past two years.
The ASA said it received 24 complaints about the latest advert. It said some complained that as they considered Scientology to be a cult and it could target vulnerable people.
However, the body said it had decided the advert did not breach any of its codes.
The spokesman said: ‘We carefully considered the complaints but decided that there weren’t grounds for further action.
'We understood that some viewers might consider the ad in poor taste because they disapproved of the practices and beliefs of the advertisers, or because they did not believe ads for religious organisa-tions should be broadcast on TV.
‘However, the Advertising Code does not prohibit ads for religious organisations from being broadcast on channels.
'The ad itself did not contain either explicit statements of belief or incitements for viewers to change their own beliefs, and only included the advertisers’ website address, and so was unlikely to breach the Code for these reasons.’
In February 2012, the ASA banned a Christian group in Bath from claiming God can heal in its leaflets and on its website, arguing that it could encourage false hope.
Asked to justify the decision to show the advert, a spokesman for ITV simply reiterated that the advert had been cleared by Clearcast.
A spokesman for the Church of Scientology in the UK said: ‘There is always a buzz, both positive and negative, that occurs in social media whenever anything interesting happens in this world.
To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.