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.

Marketing communications must not cause serious or widespread offence (rule 4.1) or condone or encourage anti-social or violent behaviour (rule 4.4). Whilst some references to sexual or domestic violence may be acceptable in ads which clearly intend to raise awareness of, and campaign against violence, references in ads which do not have a clear anti-violence message may be considered irresponsible and offensive, or be seen as trivialising or condoning violent behaviour.

Do not condone, encourage or trivialise sexual or domestic violence

The ASA has upheld complaints about multiple ads for mobile game apps which condoned and encouraged sexual violence. One of these ads featured an animated woman stuck in a fence and struggling to escape, with a man watching. The player was presented with the options “HELP” and “SLAP”, underneath a close-up of the woman’s buttocks with superimposed red handprints. The woman was then shown crying. The ads featured sexual violence in an ad for a game, and provided the player with the option to “slap” the character, depicting the woman as a sexual object to be manipulated without consent. They therefore trivialised and condoned sexual assault and encouraged sexual violence. The ads also they sexualised and objectified women, and therefore included a gender stereotype likely to cause harm (OneSoft Studio, 6 July 2022). See also AppQuantum Publishing Ltd, 24 November 2021, Ayoomi Technology Co Ltd, 1 June 2022, and SWAG Masha LLC,  19 May 2021

Light-hearted references to sexual and domestic violence are likely to be seen as trivialising the serious issue. Ads for a pub which stated “WOULD YOU PUNCH YOUR EX IN THE FACE FOR A PARMO?” were considered problematic. The ASA considered that referring to domestic violence in an advert for a fast food dish trivialised and condoned domestic violence, and therefore the ad was socially irresponsible (The George Pub and Grill, 02 August 2017).  Similarly a marketer that used its product name, Shark, as a play on the colloquial term “sharking” (which the ASA understood as a term to mean looking for a sexual partner) had complaints upheld about posters that showed people with either bruises, scratches or bites. The claims “shark victim” and “Bring out the Beast”, together with the visual, were considered by the ASA Council to be alluding to and condoning sexual violence (Shark AG, 3 July 2002).

Do not cause serious or widespread offence

Ads which are irresponsible due to references to sexual or domestic violence are also highly likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and breach rule 4.1.

Complaints about a poster showing a dominatrix with a man on all fours on a leash were upheld because the ASA considered that claims such as “a stiletto in the privates” suggested an unacceptable level of violence (Virgin Mobile, 27 February 2002).

Humour and light-hearted references

Referring to sexual or domestic violence in a light-hearted way is unlikely to mean that an ad will not be considered offensive, and using humour to refer to such a serious issue may be considered irresponsible and trivialising, and may also be understood as condoning or encouraging such behaviour.

The ASA upheld complaints about an ad which featured a photo of a woman raising her fist and standing over a man, who was covering his face with his hands. The text stated “Stop looking at Adidas trainers. Why can’t you look at porn like a normal husband?” The ASA acknowledged that the post was intended to be humorous, however, the combination of the image and the text trivialised the serious and sensitive subject of domestic violence in a way that was irresponsible and likely to cause serious and widespread offence (Man Savings, 08 March 2017).

Advertising for good causes

References to sexual or domestic violence in ads which intend to raise awareness of, or campaign against these serious issues are less likely to be understood as condoning, encouraging, or trivialising violence, or cause offence, providing the message is clear. The ASA did not uphold complaints about Police Scotland ads for rape prevention, which featured voice-overs which talked frankly about consent, because the ads were not graphic or explicit and were not broadcast at a time or on a station where children were likely to be listening (Police Scotland, 16 July 2014).

Marketing communications must not cause fear or distress without justifiable reason; if it can be justified, the fear or distress should not be excessive. Marketers must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (Code rule 4.2). Therefore, marketers should avoid excessively graphic images or references. See ‘fear and distress’.

See also entries ‘Offence: General’, ‘Social Responsibility’, ‘Violence’ and ‘Anti-social Behaviour’.

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