According to the annual report of the Advertising Standards Authority, published today, the bovine musings prompted 589 complaints - the most for a single poster or press advertisement last year.
The watchdog, which polices non-broadcast advertisements in the UK, disagreed with the complainants, concluding that the majority seeing it would not be offended. But the Irn-Bru cow and a press ad for TCP throat lozenges featuring a man with a tiger wrapped around his neck have prompted warnings from the ASA that advertisers need to take more care when portraying animals. "In past reports," the statement said, "the ASA has highlighted the need for advertisers to be more aware of public sensitivities when portraying women.
"But in 1998, those that attracted most complaints caused problems because of their portrayal of animals."
The ASA's identification of a national unease about the commercial exploitation of sundry furry animals tallies with concerns expressed about television commercials.
The most controversial TV ad of last year featured a dead pet hamster called Kevin. His tragic demise was brought on by the breakdown of his wheel. "Kevin grew bored and died," said a voiceover, before the dead creature was prodded with a pencil.
The film prompted 519 complaints, a level of outrage broadly comparable to that provoked by Irn-Bru. The Independent Television Commission ruled that it did not breach its code, but insisted that it be broadcast after the 9pm watershed.
The other common theme of the year was public concern about the depiction of religion and related symbols. The Sunday Times provoked 142 complaints with a poster designed to promote a series on the photographer Terry O'Neill. The ASA agreed that the image of a bearskin bikini-clad female model on the cross was "tasteless, provocative and blasphemous to Christians".
The authority also took a similarly dim view of a Diesel jeans magazine and poster advertisement that featured four young women dressed as nuns from the waist up, wearing jeans and holding rosaries. Behind was the Virgin Mary, also in jeans. "Pure virginal 100 per cent cotton," read the copy. "The finest denim clothing. This is our mission."
Other ads that attracted complaints included ones for Nicky Clarke shampoo and Talk Radio. The shampoo commercial showed a naked woman perched on the shoulders of a naked man washing his hair in a shower and received 131 complaints. The Talk Radio poster for a Lorraine Kelly show about prostitution showed a woman's naked buttocks with one cheek stamped with a barcode.
Overall, the number of complaints increased over the previous year (12,217 as against 10,676 in 1997). The ASA felt that this did not represent a general attempt on the part of advertisers to shock but instead reflected a high degree of popular concern with a handful of campaigns.