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.
On 14 December 2018, CAP announced the introduction of a new rule on gender stereotyping in ads, and on 14 June 2019, Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (BCAP Code) were introduced. This rule states 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.
The rulings referenced below were published before the new rules came into force and so will not reference these rules, however the advice below still applies and should be read alongside the new guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.
The ASA receives many complaints about the depiction of women in a sexual or objectifying way in advertising, and in recent years the ASA has also received a number of complaints about ads that sexualise men, or portray men as objects, though these remain in the minority.
The ASA has a strong position on ads which may sexualise, or objectify people and advertisers must also ensure that ads do not present harmful or offensive gender stereotypes.
Whilst depicting people in a sexual way is not always offensive or problematic, Sexualisation and gratuitous nudity in ads can often cause serious or widespread harm and offence.
Advertisers should avoid using sexualised imagery if this is irrelevant to the product, as this is likely to be considered offensive. In 2016 the ASA investigated an ad for a fast food company which featured two images of a woman wearing only underwear, a jacket and trainers. One image featured the woman sitting on the edge of the sofa with her cleavage emphasised, her hands between her legs and her mouth open in what appeared to be a sexual pose. As this sexualised image of a woman bore no relevance to the advertised product, the ASA considered that the ad objectified women and was likely to cause serious offence. (Harlequin Fast Food, 12 October 2016).
Using animation or fictional concepts is unlikely to get marketers off the hook; 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).
If the use of nudity is relevant to the advertised product the ASA is less likely to uphold complaints; toiletries and lingerie are good examples of products for which nudity is likely to be acceptable. However, marketers should not take that to mean all risqué ads for those types of products will be acceptable. An ad for Playboy which appeared on public transport was considered to be overtly sexual, and 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).
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.
Marketers should take care that depictions in ads do not objectify people. Objectification and sexualisation often overlap, and the ASA receives regular complaints in which women are objectified in a sexualised way.
Focussing on women’s bodies while obscuring their faces is likely to be seen as objectifying women. 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 2013 the ASA upheld a complaint about an online ad for a car featuring women dancing in burlesque style lingerie. It noted that the ad featured a number of shots of the women’s breasts and bottoms, but that their heads were obscured, and considered that this invited viewers to view the women as sexual objects. (Renault UK Ltd, 17 July 2013).
Whilst the majority of complaints are about the objectification of women, no one should be objectified in ads. Earlier this year 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).
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 ways because such approaches are likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
Because it is often difficult to judge whether ads are likely to offend, the Copy Advice team is always happy to give advice on potentially offensive ads.