The independent report ‘Letting Children be Children’, commissioned by the Government, calls on businesses, broadcasters, advertisers and regulators to take a joined-up approach to addressing parents’ concerns about a ‘sexualised culture’ surrounding children. Some of the recommendations relate specifically to the advertising industry and the work of the ASA.

One of the ASA’s key objectives in response to the report is to protect children from inappropriate sexual imagery in outdoor advertising, particularly in locations of relevance to children e.g. near schools. In April, we reported on action taken by the ASA to help meet this objective. We highlighted ads that the ASA had ruled against because the sexual content was considered to be inappropriate given the media in which the ads appeared. Marketers should note that conformity with the CAP Code is assessed “according to the marketing communication’s probable impact when taken as a whole and in context”. Therefore, the ASA will take into account the content and context of the ad, the medium in which it appeared and the audience (including their likely response) when it considers ads under the Code.

The ASA’s adjudications help marketers to understand where the ASA draws the line in relation to sexual content in ads. Two of the more important adjudications involve products that are commonly given as Christmas presents: perfume and underwear. With Christmas campaigns in mind, marketers should heed the lessons arising from these adjudications.

In November 2011, the ASA received complaints about a Marks and Spencer poster for lingerie, shown on the side of buses (ASA adjudication). Complainants objected that the images were overtly sexual, objectified women and were unsuitable to be seen by children.

The ASA Council noted that there was no explicit nudity in the poster. It considered that the nature of the product meant that members of the public were less likely to regard the ad as gratuitous or objectifying women. The ASA Council considered that the first image of a model lying on a bed was mildly sexual in nature; not all of her face was visible and there was some emphasis on her breasts.

However, Council considered that the second pose of a woman kneeling on a bed, was overtly sexual and therefore, unsuitable for untargeted outdoor display, where it was likely to be seen by children. In its assessment, the ASA Council noted that the model’s legs were wide apart, her back was arched and one arm was raised above her head with the other touching her thigh. Although the ASA Council considered the ad was unsuitable to be seen by children, it did not consider that it was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

Again in November 2011, the ASA received complaints about a magazine ad for Marc Jacobs’ “Oh Lola” perfume (ASA adjudication). The ad showed Dakota Fanning wearing a pale coloured thigh length dress, holding a perfume bottle which rested in her lap between her legs. Readers challenged whether the ad was offensive and irresponsible, because it portrayed the young model in a sexualised manner.

The ASA Council understood that the ad had appeared in publications with a target readership of those over 25 years of age. It noted that part of the model’s right thigh was visible. It also noted the perfume bottle and considered that its position was sexually provocative. Dakota Fanning was 17 years old but Council took the view that she looked under the age of 16. The length of her dress, the provocative pose, along with her appearance, led to the conclusion that the ad could be seen to sexualise a child. The ad was therefore judged both irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence.

Some commentators have highlighted the clothing and perfume industry as the major proponents of “sex sells” marketing campaigns. The ASA understands that such imagery is used to attract the attention of consumers but calls on the industries to take into consideration public sensitivities about children, and to acknowledge the requirement to produce socially responsible marketing communications under the Advertising Codes.

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