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.
The use of sexual imagery or language in advertising often draws complaints. This might include implicit or explicit references to sexual intercourse, gratuitous images, or innuendo. References to sexual intercourse, masturbation or oral sex can offend, especially if they do not have any relevance to the product being advertised, or are explicit.
Some very mild sexual content may be acceptable in untargeted media, but most sexual content, including any strong or explicit content should be appropriately targeted. Some material is likely to cause serious or widespread offence regardless of where it appears and ads which use sexual content in a way which could be considered objectifying, demeaning, exploitative, degrading or humiliating are always likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Light-hearted innuendo might be acceptable in some circumstances. An ad for toiletries based on wordplay around the word “balls” was considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence in appropriately targeted media (Unilever UK Ltd, 10 July 2013).
However advertisers must ensure that any innuendo used will not be likely to cause serious or widespread harm or offence, and that it is targeted appropriately. A radio ad for an electrical store in which the voiceover stated "Yes, everyone's going to Budd Electrical! It's B, U, double D and we all love a double D, right? ..." was ruled against by the ASA in 2016. Whilst the ad did not contain any nudity and was not overtly sexual presented women as sexual objects by inviting listeners to focus on their bra size, which was also unrelated to the service (Budd Electrical Ltd, 07 September 2016).
Sexual themes or sexually explicit visuals are particularly likely to offend if the choice of medium means that an ad is likely to be seen by people outside the target market.
Marketers are likely to be expected to take reasonable steps to ensure that online ads which are likely to be inappropriate for children are not seen by children. This may involve using age and interest-based targeting tools. In 2021 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad which featured sexually suggestive images because, although these appeared on the Independent and Sky News websites, which were not likely to be of particular appeal to children, there were likely to be some children in the audience of both websites and therefore the advertiser should have used age and interest-based targeting tools to ensure that the ads were targeted to adults and away from children (Diesel (London) Ltd, 8 December 2021.
An ad for sex toys was not considered problematic by the ASA because it appeared in a catalogue targeted at, and distributed to adults. The ads were included towards the back of the catalogue with a prominent disclaimer on the previous page which warned customers who might be offended that the next page contained “adult material” as well as an age restriction which said “Only for persons over 18 years of age”. In that context, the ASA concluded the ads were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence amongst those who saw them (Kingstown Associates Ltd, 12 April 2017).
Even in targeted ads, advertisers should exercise care when using overtly sexual content as explicit sexual images are rarely likely to be acceptable. In 2012 the ASA upheld a complaint against an ad on a dating website that featured various images of men engaged in sexual acts (BangBros.com Inc, 19 December 2012). Whilst acknowledging the website contained adult content which was available to subscribers, it noted the ad was also visible to guest users, who may have viewed the material in a different context.
A poster campaign that referred to well-endowed men, ejaculation and S&M sex was considered offensive (Halewood International, 16 June 2004). Marketers should also be extremely careful to ensure their ads do not appear to condone sexual violence (Nokia UK Ltd, 3 March 2004).
See Sexual violence.
Regardless of how explicit sexual imagery is, or the targeting, ads will be considered irresponsible if they objectify people, and marketers should take care to ensure that ads do not present people as sexual objects.
Ads which use models’ physical features as a way of drawing viewers’ attention to the ad may also be considered objectifying, particularly where they are unrelated to the product. The ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for an estate agency which pictured a man’s torso and stated “WOW, WHAT A PACKAGE”, and further text covering his crotch, because they considered that the ad was likely to have the effect of objectifying the man by using his physical features to draw attention to an unrelated product (Lewis Oliver Estates Ltd, 11 July 2018). See also Robinson Webster Holding Ltd, 22 December 2021.
Similarly, in 2021 the ASA upheld complaints about a pre-roll ad on YouTube for an online game. The ad featured two animated female characters, wearing see-through lingerie with their breasts partially exposed, bouncing along to music. The ASA considered that the ad objectified and stereotyped women by presenting them as objects in a scenario designed for the purposes of titillating viewers. Because of this, the ASA upheld the complaints on the grounds that the ad was likely to cause serious offence and included a gender stereotype in a way that was likely to cause harm (GOAT Company Ltd t/a Goat Games, 19 May 2021).
On 2 January 2018 Code rules 4.8 and 4.13 were added to the CAP and BCAP Codes respectively. These rules state that ads should not portray or represent anyone who is, or seems to be, under 18 years old in a sexual way. This does not apply to ads whose principal function is to promote the welfare of, or to prevent harm to, under 18s, provided any sexual portrayal or representation is not excessive.
Rulings published before the 2 January 2018 may refer to the age of a child being under 16, however the new rules strengthen the existing position and ensure protection for those under 18, rather than those under 16. When looking at these rulings please be aware that the ASA will now consider whether models look, or are under 18.