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 18 July 2017, the ASA published a report on Gender Stereotyping called “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm”, which provides an evidence-based case for stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics that might be harmful. Read the report here.

In response, CAP will develop new standards for the ASA to enforce and use the evidence to clarify standards that reflect some of the ASA’s existing positions. CAP will report publically on its progress before the end of 2017 and commits, as always, to delivering training and advice on the new standards before they come into force in 2018. In the meantime, the position reflected in the AOL below is current and the ASA will have regard to this guidance when investigating cases.

The ASA receives many complaints about the depiction of women in advertising. These often focus on the gratuitous use of nudity or sexual innuendo, or the use of sexist stereotypes. In recent years the ASA has also received a number of complaints about ads that treat men in a sexist manner, though these remain in the minority.

Unjustified nudity can be perceived as sexist and can cause serious or widespread offence, especially in untargeted media or if combined with innuendo. One way to minimize the risk of nudity offending, is if it is relevant to the advertised product. If it is, the ASA is less likely to uphold complaints; toiletries and lingerie are good examples of products for which nudity is likely to be acceptable. Marketers should not take that to mean all risqué ads for those types of products will be acceptable. One marketer found that its sexually charged ad was considered pornographic and degrading to women (Agent Provocateur, 11 February 2004). The ASA is more likely to uphold complaints about ads ad featuring nudity that is not related to the product. For example an ad for bicycles featuring a naked woman or an ad for building supplies featuring a woman in underwear and a hard hat (Tri UK, 11 April 2012 and MEMS DIY, 15 February 2012). Using animation or fictional conceits 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).

Marketers should take care not to depict women in demeaning, subservient, exploitative, degrading or humiliating ways because such approaches are likely to cause serious or widespread offence. For example, the ASA upheld complaints about an ad for an adult TV channel that featured a woman in her underwear in various positions with strings attached to her hands and feet. The ASA considered images of women portrayed as puppets controlled by men were likely to be seen as offensive and demeaning to women (Playboy TV, 28 July 2004 and 18 August 2004). In 2007, the ASA received complaints about a direct mailing that stated "You'd employ her to pull a few pints ... and a few new customers. Wouldn't you? BUT NOT TO DO YOUR ACCOUNTS!" beside a photograph of a young woman, with her breasts partly exposed. The ASA considered that the ad was likely to cause serious offence (Licensed Trade Accountants, 2 May 2007). Ads do not have to be explicitly sexual to be considered exploitative; images that combine nudity with apparently vulnerable positions or poses are likely to breach the Code (American Apparel UK) Ltd, 10 April 2013)

Focussing on women’s bodies in a sexual manner while obscuring their faces is likely to be seen as objectifying women. 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, in which their heads were obscured, and which it considered invited viewers to view the women as sexual objects. (Renault UK Ltd, 17 July 2013). Similarly, an ad for a gentlemen’s’ club was found to be in breach of the code because it showed just the lower half of a nearly naked woman, which was considered unduly explicit and degrading to women (Club Spice, 1 May 2013).

Innuendo that is intended to be light-hearted can be acceptable but degrading language or visuals can offend. In the past the ASA upheld against an ad that linked fishing pole repairs to pole dancing (Esselle Pole Repairs, 10 October 2012) and a bicycle ad that suggested a woman was an “Office Bike” (Universal Cycles plc, 26 November 2003). Innuendo that is vulgar, especially in untargeted media, is likely to generate complaints. An ad for a bike that stated “… this baby’s got 5” in the rear and is hungry for marathon riding sessions. She craves stiffness and loves to get down and dirty as long as she gets a good lubing after … she loves to be abused so give her all the spanking she deserves …” was considered a breach of the Code (Bikelab, 25 August 2004). In 2011 complaints about an ad for a shower gel that featured a woman with her bikini top undone and the text "THE CLEANER YOU ARE THE DIRTIER YOU GET" were upheld. Although the ASA did not consider the ad graphic or indecent, they did consider it made a link between purchasing the product and sex with women, and in so doing would be seen to objectify women (Unilever UK Ltd, 23 November 2011).

Sexual stereotyping, whether of men or women, can cause offence (The Creative Circle, 26 May 2004, and Lormar Ltd, 7 July 2004). See Offence: Use of stereotypes.

Because it is often difficult to judge whether ads are likely to offend, and because that can sometimes change quite quickly, the Copy Advice team is always happy to give advice on potentially offensive ads.

See Offence: Sex.



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