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 too explicit. For example, a complaint about a poster that showed a female plumber kneeling in front of a radiator alongside the text “grinding, banging, stripping, spreading, screwing, sucking … job done” was upheld by the ASA (Balloo Hire Centre, 22 November 2006) as was a poster for a lap dancing club, that showed a woman kneeling over a frothing bottle of champagne (Grace of Brighton, 6 February 2008). However, humour may sometimes get marketers off the hook. In 2007, the ASA rejected a complaint about a poster that advertised the opening of a new lingerie store and was headlined “Making Devon Cream” (Ann Summers Ltd, 29 August 2007).

Using innuendo

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, more graphic references are likely to be problematic. 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.

Targeting is important

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. An ad in the Sun’s TV listings magazine for mobile phone wallpaper, video games and ringtones was found to have breached the Code because it included images and captions considered unsuitable for a page likely to be looked at by children (Red Circle Technologies Ltd, 7 November 2007). Similarly in 2014, the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad which showed a couple having sex, which appeared on the advertiser’s Twitter feed, because the content was considered too strongly sexual to appear in an untargeted medium (giffgaff Ltd, 19 November 2014). Conversely, a Gucci ad that appeared in women's style press and showed a man kneeling at the feet of a woman who had lowered her underwear to reveal pubic hair in the shape of 'G' was considered acceptable. The ASA considered that the ad was unlikely to offend because it had been carefully targeted and was so stylised it was not sexually explicit; the decision would likely have been different if the choice of media was not so selective (Gucci, 26 February 2003).

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 ( 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.

See Offence: Use of stereotypes, Offence: Sexism, Offence: Sexual Orientation, Offence: Nudity, Children: Sexual Imagery

Last updated 25 November 2014

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