The latest sad story of trammeled speech in the UK comes from Northamptonshire, where there is a furniture company called The Sofa King. For years their advertisements and their vans have borne a legend stating that their prices are "Sofa King Low". But not any more: having escaped when they were reported to the police in 2004 (the Crown Prosecution Service wouldn't act), they have now met their come-uppance: their slogan has been branded offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority. I hope you can see why.
If you can't see why, let me invite you to read the slogan out aloud a few times. Gettit? Gottit? Good. [The joke was in a Saturday Night Live sketch, which Language Log discussed in 2007, and has a history going back before that.]
The ASA is the advertising industry's own institution for self-policing, but in general advertisers pretty much have to go along with it to avoid general public and government wrath. It ruled on the case solely because three (3) humorless busybody readers of the Northampton Herald and Post claimed the catchphrase was "offensive and unsuitable for general display … because the phrase could have been interpreted as a derivative of a swear word." (How the clothing store French Connection UK gets away with its signs and T-shirts saying FCUK, I have no idea.)
To me, this all seems sofa king stupid. Mostly the general public pays very little attention to anything that it says on printed signs anyway. And once you start banning things because of what they might suggest or seem to sound like or "could have been interpreted as", there will be no stopping place. (How will anyone talk about the philosopher Immanuel Kant, pronouncing the surname correctly? And what of the Pho King Vietnamese restaurants?) But I suppose once you institute a democracy in a place like the UK where there is no constitution dictating respect for free expression, this sort of thing will happen: three putatively offended customers, and wham, down comes the boom (whether strictly enforced by the government or through a surrogate like the nominally voluntary ASA policing).
Back to the drawing board, Sofa King: time to design a new slogan that will catch the eye of customers but not of the stern and unsmiling Advertising Standards Authority.
[Pullum got quite a bit of help on this post, you know: from James Dreier, Ben Zimmer, Cory Lubliner, Keith Ivey, Nick Lamb… He has this whole staff of volunteer helpers. But he has closed comments as usual. Sofa king annoying.]