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 ASA receives many complaints about ads on the grounds that they sexualise or objectify people. Sexual imagery must not be used in a way which is likely to cause serious or widespread offence (Code rule 4.1). Some sexual imagery may be acceptable if the ad is targeted appropriately; however, marketers should be aware that some explicit imagery may be considered likely to cause serious or widespread offence wherever it appears. In addition to this, ads will be considered irresponsible if they objectify people, regardless of the degree of the targeting, or sexualisation in the ad, and marketers should take care to ensure that their ads do not present people in a way which is likely to sexually objectify people (Code rule 1.3).
Often, ads which depict sexualisation or objectify people present a harmful or offensive gender stereotype. Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code and 4.14 (BCAP Code) state that ads ‘must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’. This followed a review of gender stereotyping in ads by the ASA is also supported by additional guidance on potentially harmful gender stereotypes. This rule came into force on 14 June 2019, and therefore any rulings referenced below which were published before this date will not reference these rules; however, the rule would apply if the ads had been considered after this date. The advice below should be read alongside CAP’s guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence and Harm and Offence: Gender Stereotypes.
Harm and offence
Whilst depicting people in a sexual way is not always offensive, sexualisation and gratuitous nudity in ads can often cause serious or widespread and offence and harm.
Advertisers should avoid using sexualised imagery if this is irrelevant to the product, as this is likely to be considered offensive, and potentially harmful. In 2021 the ASA investigated an ad for an online takeaway service which featured an image of a woman wearing lingerie lying back in a provocative pose behind various fast-food items. Although the ad was not sexually explicit, by using a suggestive image of a woman that bore no relevance to the advertised product, the ad objectified women by presenting them as sexual objects. The ASA considered that the ad was likely to cause serious offence, and included a gender stereotype in a way that was likely to cause harm (The Food Hub, 22 December 2021). See also Harlequin Fast Food, 12 October 2016.
Similarly, the ASA considered that an online ad for a T-shirt was irresponsible and likely to cause offence because it objectified and sexualised women. The images featured a model wearing the t-shirt with only thong-style bikini bottoms and trainers, in poses which focused more on the model’s body than the product, and the ASA considered that the nudity shown was not relevant to the product and that the images did not show the product as it would usually be worn (Boohoo.com UK Ltd, 16 February 2022). See also J MAC Excavators Ltd, 22 December 2021).
The ASA may be less likely to uphold complaints about the depiction of nudity if the use of nudity is relevant to the advertised product, for example lingerie. However, marketers should not take that to mean any amount of sexualisation or nudity in ads for those types of products will be acceptable. An ad for Playboy which appeared on public transport was considered likely to cause serious or widespread offence for featuring overtly sexual images of women in an untargeted medium. (Playboy TV UK Ltd, 07 November 2012).
Even if an ad is sent to existing customers, who may be familiar with the nature of the products sold, explicit sexual imagery which is more explicit than the target audience is likely to expect will be considered problematic. The ASA has upheld complaints about email ads for an online underwear retailer which featured images of models wearing underwear through which their penises were visible. Although recipients of the ads would have likely visited the retailer’s website and subsequently subscribed to their mailing list, the images featured in the ads were more sexually explicit than the images generally featured on the website. In addition, the subject line of the emails “Important Announce [sic] – Black Friday 2021”, and “The website is OPEN. GO!”, did not make it clear to recipients that the ads would contain sexually explicit content. Because the images were sufficiently explicit to be likely to cause serious offence, and they did not appear against an established context of similar content on the website, the ASA concluded that the ads were likely to cause serious offence to some recipients (Box Menswear Ltd, 16 February 2022).
See also Offence: Sex.
Some sexual content which is unlikely to be acceptable in untargeted media may be acceptable in medium which is suitably targeted.
If placing ads online, marketers should ensure that ads do not appear alongside content which is likely to be seen by children. The ASA has considered multiple ads which appeared in apps which were likely to have appeal to children. The ASA considered that ads which stated “Gumtree for sex” and featured nudity were likely to cause serious and widespread offence and were irresponsibly targeted, because they were seen in a puzzle game app which was likely to appeal to a general audience, including children (Person(s) unknown, 08 December 2021).
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, 08 December 2021).
Marketers should be aware, however, that some material will be problematic regardless of the targeting. Ads should never objectify people, or feature children in a sexual way.
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.
Focussing on people’s bodies while obscuring their faces is likely to be seen as objectifying. A complaint about a VOD ad for femfresh bikini line products was upheld by the ASA for being overly sexualised in a way that objectified women, because the ad featured sexualised dance moves, the clothes were revealing and the ad focused on the women’s crotches with relatively few shots of their faces (Church & Dwight UK Ltd t/a Femfresh, 12 July 2017).
Similarly, in 2021 the ASA upheld a complaint about a magazine ad for a clothing company which featured cropped close-up images of a woman’s buttocks in briefs printed with the words “FOLLOW ME”, and “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT”. The ASA considered that the images, which focused on the women’s body parts while obscuring their faces, in combination with the suggestive nature of the slogans stereotyped women by presenting them as sexual objects, and was therefore irresponsible, likely to cause serious offence and included a gender stereotype in a way that was likely to cause harm (Persons Unknown t/a KaiAviation, 23 June 2021). See also Renault UK Ltd, 17 July 2013.
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. In 2018 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).
Similarly, the ASA considered that an email for a clothing collection was irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence because it objectified and stereotyped women as sexual objects. The images featured a model climbing over a fence wearing a jumper, boots, and underpants, alongside the heading “these boots were made for walking”. The model’s face was not visible, and the focus was on the model’s exposed buttocks and upper legs, which, in combination with the low angle shot gave the image a voyeuristic feel. The ASA also noted that the model appeared to be out for a hike or walk in the woods, where people would not ordinarily be undressed in that way (Robinson Webster Holding Ltd, 22 December 2021).
Often, ads which sexualise or objectify people do so in a way which includes a gender stereotype. Marketers must ensure that ads do not present gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence, as this will be considered a breach of rule 4.9. In 2021 the ASA upheld complaints about an Instagram post for a clothing company which depicted women wearing lingerie, angel wings and animal ears, and featured a voiceover which stated, “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total [bleeped out] and no other girls can say anything about it. The hard-core girls just wear lingerie and some form of animal ears”. The ASA considered that it would be obvious to viewers that the bleeped-out word was “slut”, which was a negative stereotype of women, and was commonly used to refer to women in a derogatory way that passed judgment on certain behaviours. The ASA considered that by linking the clothes featured in the ad with the denigrating term ‘slut’, and implying women should aspire to being objectified, the ad was likely to cause serious offence and included a gender stereotype in a way that was likely to cause harm (Babyboo Fashion Pty Ltd, 14 April 2021). See also Rangosious Public Holdings Ltd, 15 December 2021).
Innuendo and humour
Innuendo that is intended to be light-hearted can be acceptable but degrading language or visuals can offend, even if intended to be humorous. 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). Similarly a complaint about an ad for wine which featured a cropped image of a woman’s torso accompanied by the text “taste the bush” was upheld by the ASA because the combination of concealing her face and the reference to her genitalia and oral sex was considered sexual objectification (Budge Brands Ltd t/a Premier Estates Wine, 04 November 2015)
Marketers should take care not to depict people in a demeaning, subservient, exploitative, degrading, or humiliating way because such approaches are likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
In 2013 the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for propeller “stripper” featuring an illustration of a topless mermaid (Ambassador Marine Ltd, 24 July 2013).
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).
Ads featuring suggestive or sexualised imagery of children, such as children in heavy make-up or provocative poses are always problematic and should not be used. On 2 January 2018 Code rules 4.8 and 4.4 were added to the CAP and BCAP Codes respectively. These rules state that ads should not portray or represent in a sexual way anyone who is, or seems to be, under 18 years old. This does not apply to ads whose principal function is to promote the welfare of, or to prevent harm to, under18s, provided any sexual portrayal or representation is not excessive. See Children: Sexual Imagery.