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.
Marketers may use stereotypes in advertising but should be careful not to cause serious or widespread offence. Generally speaking, the ASA regards the use of light-hearted stereotypes as acceptable but marketers should be careful that they are not seen as offensive, demeaning or the subject of ridicule. That judgment is obviously subjective and the ASA and CAP will judge each ad on its merit.
Code rule 4.1 states that particular care must be taken to avoid offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Marketers should be particularly aware of their depictions of these characteristics, and ensure that their ads do not contain anything which may be likely to cause serious or widespread offence on any grounds.
Advertisers should avoid depicting racial stereotypes in their advertising and should not include anything which may cause offence on the grounds of race. In 2016, a complaint about a press ad which featured an illustration of a character referred to in the ad as a ‘golly’ holding a pint of ginger beer with text underneath stating “ENGLISH FREEDOM” was upheld. The ASA considered that people were likely to view the character as representing negative racial stereotypes, and its prominent inclusion in a press ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. They also considered that the inclusion of the words “ENGLISH FREEDOM” in the ad was likely to contribute to that offence, because in combination with the image it could be read as a negative reference to immigration or race (Ginger Pop Ltd 21 September 2016).
Whilst the ASA appreciates that in many circumstances it is not the advertiser’s intention to offend, the ASA will consider how viewers will interpret the ad, rather than the advertisers intention. In 2017 a complaint about an ad which featured Floyd Mayweather and stated “always bet on black” was upheld because, whilst the advertiser felt that the ad was humorous and stated that Floyd Mayweather approved the ad, the ASA considered that readers would nevertheless be offended by the invitation to always bet on the outcome of a boxing match based on a boxer’s race, and the message that the boxing match was a fight between two different races. (Paddy Power, 20 September 2017).
Whilst light hearted depictions may sometimes be acceptable, humour itself does not prevent an ad from being likely to cause offence and advertisers should take care that humour is not based on racial stereotypes. A radio ad was upheld by the ASA for using a characters accent in an ad in a way which was likely to cause offence. The ad featured a character buying a kitchen, who stated "Surplised" before he corrected himself and said "I mean surprised". The ASA considered that whilst the ad was intended to be an ironic use of humour, the humour was derived from the ethnicity of the character, and concluded that was likely to cause serious offence to some people and be seen as discriminatory (Brunel Supplies, 07 August 2013).
Whether or not an ad is considered offensive on the grounds of race will depend on the context. A complainant challenged whether an ad for Twining teas portrayed a negative racial stereotype of a black man as sexually promiscuous and there to provide sexual services for white women. The ASA did not uphold this complaint as although it acknowledged the innuendo featured was mildly sexual, it did not consider that this was reliant on the young man’s ethnic origins or a racial stereotype and as such was not considered offensive on the grounds of race (R Twining, 26th March 2008).
See also Offence: Racism
Ads should not depict cultural stereotypes in a way which is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. A press ad headlined "One pistol shot and 46,000 people start running. Yes, it's the Italian army", was judged to have offended by implying that Italians were generally cowardly (Shepherd Neame Ltd, 19 July 2006). Similarly, ads for the Channel 4 documentary Big Fat Gypsy Weddings that contained the phrase "BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER", with images of a child striking an aggressive pose and two young women dressed provocatively were considered offensive for reinforcing negative cultural stereotypes (Channel 4 Television Corporation, 3 October 2012).
Whilst it is acceptable to present beliefs and challenge others in advertising, this should not be done in a way which could ridicule or demean other religions or beliefs. A national press ad for the Gay Police Association highlighted homophobic incidents where the sole or primary motivating factor was the religious belief of the perpetrator, and stated "in the name of the father", showing a photograph of a Bible next to a pool of blood. Complainants believed the ad implied that Christians were the perpetrators of the reported incidents and that all Christians shared these views. The ASA agreed the ad was likely to offend Christian readers on these grounds (Gay Police Association, 18 October 2006).
The ASA received a complaint about an ad for a sex toy which appeared on 16 April, which stated "RES-ERECTION", "Easter Treats" and "Sinful Sunday". The complainant felt that using a religious holiday to advertise a sex toy was offensive. The ASA understood that Easter was a particularly sacred time of worship for Christians, and noted the ad played particularly on the religious provenance of the holiday by referencing "RES-ERECTION" and "Sinful Sunday". As such they considered the use of the religious holiday of Easter to advertise a sex toy was likely to cause serious offence and concluded that it was therefore in breach of the Code (Honey Birdette UK Ltd, 12 July 2017).
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 is in the process of developing new standards for the ASA to enforce and use the evidence to clarify standards that reflect some of the ASA’s existing positions. CAP and BCAP have proposed a new rule and guidance to address the use of gender stereotypes in advertising and the consultation on this proposal will run from 17 May to 26 July. This consultation seeks respondents’ views on whether the proposed rule and guidance are necessary and offer the appropriate means of delivering change in a transparent, proportionate, targeted and helpful manner.
In the meantime, the position reflected in the AOL below is current and the ASA will have regard to this guidance when investigating cases.
In 2007, the ASA received complaints about an ad that showed a barmaid with the claim “You’d employ her to pull a few pints …. and a few new customers …. but not to do your accounts!” The ASA considered that this was likely sexist, insulting and demeaning towards women and likely to cause offence. (Licensed Trade Accountants, 2 May 2007).
Several campaigns have depicted elderly people in an adverse or offensive way and marketers should not mock, humiliate or degrade people of any age.
The ASA has upheld a complaint about a poster which featured an elderly white woman sitting on a sofa alongside a young black man. The man had his arms around the woman and his eyes were closed, whilst the woman held an electronic cigarette and was looking directly at the camera. Text alongside the image stated "NO TOBACCO. NO TABOO". The ASA considered that consumers were likely to interpret the ad to mean that smoking e-cigarettes was not a taboo issue and that in contrast, a relationship between an older woman and a younger man, and a couple of different races, was something that was unusual or socially unacceptable. Because of that, the ASA concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race and age (Nicofresh Ltd, 6 August 2014).
See also Offence: Elderly.
Advertisers should be cautious to ensure that they do not depict offensive stereotypes of mental or physical disability or illness in their ads. In 2014 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad that appeared around the time of the criminal trial of the Olympic and Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, and which featured the text “money back if he walks”. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that readers would understand that to be a reference to the outcome of a criminal trial, it also considered that the text was a clear reference to Oscar Pistorius’s disability and was likely to cause serious or widespread offence because it made light of disability (Paddy Power, 19 March 2014). Similarly, in 2013 the ASA upheld a complaint about a design company website that stated "Who said good creativity should cost an..." next to a picture of an amputee with one arm and leg. The ASA considered that the claim went further than simply being in poor taste and that using the image for a visual pun, made light of disability (B More Creative Advertising and Design Ltd, 9 January 2013).
Marketers should tread carefully when referencing mental illness in ads. In some contexts, words such as “mad” or “bonkers” may be used in a way which makes no direct reference to mental health and as such will not cause offence. However, references to mental health must be treated with care. The use of straitjackets has often caused offence (Onetoo Ltd, 24 March 2004; Neat Ideas, 21 May 2003; Carlton Cards, 12 June 2002, and 365 Corporation plc, 16 January 2002), and an ad for a fancy dress costume called “Skitzo” was judged to be offensive for its negative reference to mental illness (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 28 January 2015). On the other hand, a “Psycho Clown” was judged acceptable on the basis that ‘psycho’ was a word that was also associated with villainous horror movie characters and, in the context of the ad, was unlikely to be taken as a reference to a person genuinely suffering from mental illness (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 16 September 2015).