Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

There is often a suspicion that some ads for escort agencies, saunas and massage parlours are, in fact, advertising sexual services from illegally trafficked women. Many of these ads appear in the personal or classified sections of local or regional newspapers.

Private classified advertising is not regulated by the ASA and they cannot therefore stop those types of ad from appearing. Business classified ads, on the other hand, are within the ASA’s remit and could be investigated if a complaint was received. The ASA will consider only the content and context of the ad and cannot investigate or make judgments about the business or service that lies behind the ad. In other words, the ASA cannot comment on the legality or otherwise of a business or service; concerns of that nature would fall to other bodies such as Trading Standards or, in this case, the Police.

Although private classified ads themselves are not in the ASA’s remit, the advertising of a classified ads website (or similar) would be. In 2015, the ASA upheld a complaint about a website which stated, “A little bit of Bella… A little bit of Layla… A little bit of Nicola… Get your own little bit at”. Whilst it was acknowledged this was a reference to a song, the ASA considered the ad objectified women and implied they could be bought on the website (W3 Ltd t/a Vivastreet, 8 July 2015).  

The context in which an ad appears can also have an impact.  In 2022 the ASA upheld complaints about a dating service which referred to “thousands of lonely Ukrainian women” noting that the war in Ukraine meant that the vulnerability of Ukrainian women was an area of public concern. (Astrasoft Projects Ltd, 13 July 2022).

All marketers are obliged to ensure their ads are legal, incite no one to break the law, are prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society and avoid causing serious or widespread offence. Irrespective of the legitimacy of the business, explicit images of naked or semi-naked women and men are likely to offend, as are claims that are disrespectful to all gender identities. Claims that allude to young or vulnerable individuals might be seen as socially irresponsible - for example, claims such as “Fresh New Girls Every Week” or “Hot, Young Babes - All Nationalities Daily” are almost certainly a problem.

Both CAP and the ASA are keen to ensure that legitimate businesses may trade and advertise if they do so legally, decently, honestly, truthfully, fairly and responsibly. Many legitimate businesses offer escort, sauna or massage services and the ASA distinguishes between the offence caused by advertising and that caused by the product. Claims such as, “Come in for a deluxe massage”, “Spend an evening with the Valley’s escorts”, “Saunas – Men Only” or “Visit Saucy’s Escort Agency” are unlikely to breach the Code in isolation.

Publishers and media owners should be aware of the concern and be on alert for ads which offer services that could involve enforced prostitution.

See ‘Legality’.

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