Science & Tech

YouTuber TomSka has yet another 'violent' Surfshark advert banned by advertising standards watchdog

Related video: Climate activists hijack car adverts to highlight environmental impact

Euronews News/VideoElephant

Content creator Thomas Ridgewell, known on YouTube by the username TomSka and as the creator of the animated series asdfmovie, previously tasked himself with producing the edgiest advert for Surfshark VPN in a bid to lose the brand partnership, and ended up falling foul of the UK’s advertising watchdog instead.

Now, would you believe it, he’s done it again.

As a reminder, back in February 2022, Ridgewell released a video on his second YouTube channel titled “Dear Surfshark, Please Fire Me”, in which he explained his ambition to find an advert which the company would end up rejecting after approving progressively edgier content.

Adverts given the green light by Surfshark included gun violence, child death, and namedropping competitors – all things which would make your standard professional company uncomfortable with signing off, but not Surfshark.

Ridgewell explained at the time: “The challenge was to find Surfshark’s breaking point, and I would do anything – I would do anything – to find it. I have to know.

“I say, ‘you know what, guys? Maybe I just do a really brutal torture scene? How do you like that?

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“And they said, ‘yeah, we like that. Do it, you f***ing coward.”

Dear Surfshark, Please Fire Mewww.youtube.com

So he did, producing an ad which appeared in his January 2022 video “Thomas The Tank Engine Is Darker Than You Think” which came complete with a bloodied hostage, stabbings and someone being tasered.

Except, while Surfshark was more than fine with the finished video, the watchdog that is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – who regulate ads in the UK - banned it for being “likely to cause fear and distress to viewers without a justifiable reason”.

Finding out where the line was in terms of ad regulation, Ridgewell told indy100 at the time: “I asked the universe how far I could push it and, while the indifferent cosmos remained silent, the ASA answered.

“I’ve asked the ASA how best I can avoid crossing the line in the future, because I fully intend to walk it like a tightrope for the rest of my career.”

Surfshark, meanwhile, told the regulator there was a “clear disclaimer” at the start of the video, which meant the audience “was warned about the content and those unfamiliar with the channel, who did not want to see such things, would have been prevented from seeing it”.

Only one complaint was received about the advert for it to be banned by the ASA, and on Wednesday, another Surfshark ad by TomSka was shut down by the regulator as a result of just a single individual complaining the ad was “excessively violent”.

This time, as part of a video uploaded as part of the TomSka and Friends’ competitive series ‘TryHards’ titled “Last One To Leave Their Garden Wins”, Ridgewell appeared alongside colleague Eddie Bowley to promote the virtual private network (that’s what VPN stands for, by the way).

After talking about how to taxidermy a baby to canned laughter (it was a plastic doll, don’t worry), TomSka turned to talk about Surfshark and explain the purpose of the digital service.

“Well, you know those times you’re trying to access content that’s not available in your country,” asked Ridgewell in the skit.

Bowley replied: “Oh, like movies and TV shows like on Netflix?”

“Exactly,” Ridgewell confirmed.

His friend continued: “And Amazon Prime? And Apple TV? And HBO Max? And Disney+? And Paramount Plus? And Discovery+? Hulu? Peacock? Britbox?”

Growing increasingly frustrated by Bowley’s enthusiasm, Ridgewell angrily replied “yes” before returning to his promotional script – only it wasn’t long before his friend was back listing things excessively, prompting Ridgewell to drink alcohol and smash a glass over Bowley’s head.

In the final clip of the ad, after Bowley listed things one last time, Ridgewell could be seen covered in fake blood while talking about a promo code which viewers could use for a discount – the presumption being, of course, that the content creator had ‘killed’ his co-star.

An edgy segment of the video, for sure, but one which the ASA concluded “irresponsibly featured scenes with a level of violence that was likely to cause distress to viewers that was unjustified”.

“Notwithstanding that the media in which the ad featured did not appear to be directed at children, and that the evidence provided suggested the viewers of the video and TomSka and Friends YouTube channel were predominantly adults, we considered that the content of particular scenes in the ad was unlikely to be suitable for either children aged 12 years and over or for a general adult audience,” they said.

References to the channel’s demographics come after Turbopunch Ltd. – Ridgewell’s company – revealed almost 93 per cent of viewers of the video were 18 or over, compared to just seven per cent being between 13 and 17 years of age.

On a channel wide level, Turbopunch said 91.8 per cent of subscribers to the TomSka and Friends channel were adults, while 8.3 per cent were aged 13 to 17.

Referring to Turbopunch’s response to their enquiries, the ASA writes: “[Turbopunch] explained that they had made concerted efforts to ensure that the overall tone and presentation of the sketch in the ad was not excessively violent, threatening and/or distressing, taking guidance from the BBFC [British Board of Film Classification] and ASA into consideration.

“They said their intention was not to shock the viewer, but to educate them about the Surfshark VPN service and portray the commercial message in an unconventional comic and irreverent manner. They believed the ‘12+’ age guide for the ad felt appropriate as it correlated with the BBFC’s rating guide for 12A productions.

“They said the ad was made and directed for an adult audience which was evident from the disclaimer at the beginning, and the audience demographic for the channel and video.”

Turbopunch also told the watchdog the advert was prepared “for an age-appropriate audience” and a disclaimer “attempted to avert and forewarn” younger viewers who may have stumbled upon the video.

The ruling continues: “Turbopunch Ltd said the whole visual narrative and script was entirely unrealistic and absurd and contained several juxtaposed comic elements that fed into and exaggerated the bizarre and silly, satirical, nature of the sponsored sketch.

“They believed a reasonable person viewing the ad in the context of such visual-audio cues would understand the over-the-top nature of the segments as a slapstick response to the linear progression of the sketch.”

When they were approached by the ASA to reply to the complaint, Surfshark said the advert did not cause fear or distress because it was “designated for and viewed only by adults who could understand the cinematic and satirical presentation of the film”.

They also drew attention to the fact that the view had been seen more than 409,000 times, and yet only one complaint was made, which they said demonstrated that “the critical majority of viewers were not offended by the humorous content of the ad”.

“[Surfshark] said that a clear disclaimer appeared at the beginning of the video, warning of ‘strong language’, ‘blood and violence’, ‘discussion of bodily functions’ and ‘reckless imitable behaviour’. It also stated ‘the following video is not intended for children’, and it featured a suggested age rating of ‘12+’,” the ruling reads.

In a statement to indy100, Ridgewell said he personally does not agree with the regulator's decision.

"Whilst grateful for the important work undertaken by the ASA, I sincerely believe that Surfshark, [influencer marketing agency] Digital Voices, and I took the necessary steps to safeguard vulnerable audiences, and the ad itself was clearly signposted as comedic.

"We take the [Committee on Advertising Practice's] Code rules seriously and have used all reasonable efforts to comply with them in relation to the video, despite the ruling, and we will continue to create content which we believe is compliant with the same," he said.

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