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 should ensure that the use of stereotypes in advertising will not cause serious or widespread offence. Marketers should not use stereotypes in an offensive, mocking or demeaning way.  

Rule 4.1 states that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and specifies that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. 

Race
Culture
Religion and belief
Gender and sexual orientation
Disability or illness
Mental health
Age

Race

Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, cultures, nationalities or ethnic groups, and ensure that their marketing communications are not likely to do so.

Marketers should consider the context in which their ads will be understood.  Complaints about a regional press ad for mattresses, which featured an image of a Union Jack and a cartoon mattress wearing a green surgical mask, were also upheld in 2020. Text in the ad stated, “BRITISH BUILD [sic] BEDS PROUDLY MADE IN THE UK. NO NASTY IMPORTS”. Whilst the reference to “BRITISH BUILD”, and the image of the Union Jack, were intended to draw attention to the fact that their beds were made in the UK, the ASA considered that the phrase “NO NASTY IMPORTS”, in combination with the image of the surgical mask, was likely to be taken as a reference to the coronavirus outbreak. The ASA considered that in combination with the image, the reference to “nasty imports” was likely to be read as a negative reference to immigration or race, and in particular as associating immigrants with disease, and therefore that the ad was likely to cause serious and/or widespread offence on the grounds of nationality or race (Vic Smith Bedding Ltd, 11 March 2020).

Whilst the ASA appreciates that it is not generally the advertiser’s intention to offend, the ASA will consider how viewers are likely interpret the ad, rather than the advertiser’s intention. Light-hearted depictions may sometimes be acceptable; however humour does not in itself prevent an ad from being likely to cause offence, and humour which is derived from race is often likely to be offensive.  A Facebook post with the heading “BLACK CARS MATTER. I ASKED HOLLY FOR A HEADLINE FOR THIS A4 (Audi) AND SHE SAID: ‘ONCE YOU GO BLACK, YOU NEVER GO BACK!” and further text which stated “MANUAL GEARBOX (BIG GEARKNOB)”, was ruled not to be acceptable despite the advertiser believing it was a inoffensive 'pun'. In that case, the ASA decided that not only did the ad trivialise the Black Lives Matter movement, but also fetishised and objectified black men, and was likely to cause serious offence (Lingscars.com Ltd, 23 September 2020).

For additional guidance see Offence: Race 

Culture

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 as being likely to cause serious or widespread offence 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).

Religion and belief

Whilst it is acceptable to present beliefs and challenge other beliefs in advertising, this should not be done in a way which could ridicule or demean other religions or beliefs.

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 likely to cause serious or widespread offence. 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).

For further guidance see Offence: Religion and belief.

Gender and sexual orientation

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. These rules 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, and the interpretation of the rules is also supported by Advertising Guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence,.  Marketers are advised to consider this Advertising Guidance in full.

The ASA ruled against an ad for search engine optimisation services which included the text "YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE'LL DO THE SEO THING" following complaints that it perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by depicting a woman running a business in a patronising way.  The advertiser explained that “girl boss” was a reference to a book, popular culture movement and professional network, but the ASA considered that many people were unlikely to be familiar with it.  As such, the ASA considered that the gendered term “girl boss”, without any other context, reinforced the impression that a female boss was an exception to the norm, and the use of “girl” to refer to an adult woman reinforced the impression that a female boss was a novelty, and was less serious than a man in the same position. The ASA also considered that, in contrast with the gendered reference in the first part of the sentence, “We’ll do the SEO thing” (referring to search engine optimisation) was likely to be understood to mean that females in particular needed help with IT matters, which reinforced a well-established stereotype that women were not skilled at using technology (People Per Hour Ltd t/a PeoplePerHour 8 January 2020).

Ads which mock characters based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, or which use stereotypes in a way which may demean or ridicule groups or individuals, are likely to be considered offensive or harmful.  In 2012 the ASA upheld a TV ad for Paddy Power which stated “we’re going to make Ladies day even more exciting by sending in some beautiful transgendered ladies! Spot the stallions from the mares!”, and featured brief shots of people at the event while the voiceover attempted to guess their gender. The ASA considered that the ad trivialised a complex issue, and depicted a number of common negative stereotypes, and therefore was likely to cause serious offence, and condoned and encouraged harmful discriminatory behaviour (Paddy Power, 16 May 2012).

For further guidance see Harm and offence: Gender stereotypes,

See also Offence: Sexualisation and objectificationSocial responsibility: Body image, and Offence: Sexual orientation and gender identity.

Age

Ads should not depict people in an adverse or offensive way, particularly when the focus in on their age, and marketers should not mock, humiliate or degrade the elderly. An ad which makes general comments about people of a certain age being incapable at certain tasks, for example, may be problematic.

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).

For additional guidance see Offence: Age

Disability or illness

Marketers should be cautious to ensure that they do not include stereotypical depictions of disability or illness in a way which could cause serious or widespread offence.  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, and was therefore likely to cause serious or widespread offence (B More Creative Advertising and Design Ltd, 9 January 2013).

For additional guidance see Offence: Disability.

Mental health

Marketers should tread carefully when referencing mental illness in ads to ensure that the reference is not socially irresponsible, or offensive. 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 generally cause offence or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. However, references to mental health must be treated with care. 

In 2015, the ASA investigated an online ad for a Halloween costume called “Adult Skitzo Costume”, after receiving a complaint that it reinforced negative attitudes about schizophrenia and other mental health problems. On the basis of the ad’s reference to a specific mental health problem and the use of the term “Skitzo”, in conjunction with the image of the costume, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health issues, and the complaint was upheld (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 28 January 2015).

On the other hand, a “Psycho Clown” costume 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).

For additional guidance see Mental health: Depicting mental health conditions.


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