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 who show or allude to sexual or domestic violence must take extreme care not to offend or to condone anti-social or violent behaviour.

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). A poster for an alcoholic beverage, Red Square, showed scratches on a man's naked back. Not only did it consider that the poster condoned violence, the ASA ruled that the ad implied sexual activity and breached the alcohol section of the Code (Halewood International Ltd, 22 May 2002). Similarly, a Diesel poster showing the backs of a topless man and woman covered in whip marks was deemed likely to cause serious or widespread offence (Diesel (London) Ltd, 23 November 2005).

Even executions that are intended to be light-hearted have fallen foul of the Code’s requirements on grounds of taste and decency, social responsibility or condoning violent behaviour. 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). Such themes might be more acceptable when used in better targeted media: a complaint about a mailing for a locksmith showing a woman's hands tied behind her back with a chain and locked with a padlock was not upheld. The complainant objected that the ad was pornographic and condoned domestic violence but the ASA considered that the image was not explicit, did not condone violence, and that in conjunction with the caption "Locks for all occasions ..." was likely to be seen simply as a light-hearted reference to consensual bondage practices (Fixings Warehouse, 25 October 2006).

Marketers must also take care with words or phrases used in their ads. In 2017, the ASA upheld a complaint about a screenshot for an online game which showed the back of a computer-generated woman where the two options offered to the user were “Fondle” or “Ravage”. The ASA considered that the words “fondle” and “ravage” were non-consensual actions and therefore trivialised and condoned sexual assault.  Similarly, the use of a computer-generated figure rather than a real person does not relieve the marketer’s social responsibility. (Readmob Technologies (HK) Ltd, 30 August 2017).

Marketers who use depictions of domestic violence should proceed with caution. The ASA has seen a rise in the number of cases relating to domestic violence, including where the violence is directed towards men. The ASA recently upheld a case against Man Savings where the advertiser had posted a picture on social media 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?” (Man Savings, 08 March 2017). Again, ads which are intended to be humorous which depict domestic violence are often considered to be unacceptable. This includes a complaint about The George Pub and Grill, who posted a picture on social media which stated “WOULD YOU PUNCH YOUR EX IN THE FACE FOR A PARMO?” (The George Pub and Grill, 02 August 2017).

It is worth stressing that the acceptability of ads is likely to depend on the medium and context in which they appear. Marketers who are raising awareness of, or campaigning against, sexual or domestic violence are treated with more leniency but should nevertheless take account of the potential pitfalls and scheduling restrictions, especially with regards to children. For instance, the ASA received complaints about two Police Scotland radio ads for rape prevention, which both featured voice-overs which talked frankly about consent between both heterosexual and homosexual couples. However, the ASA ruled that 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).

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

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