Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both of which were Upheld.
Two ads for Vivastreet online classified ads service:
a. A poster displayed on a bus stop pictured three women posing and looking at the camera and text which stated "A little bit of Bella … A little bit of Layla… A little bit of Nicola … Get your own little bit at vivastreet.co.uk".
b. An ad on the side of a black cab featured the same image and text as ad (a).
The ASA received 24 complaints:
1. All the complainants objected that the ads, and in particular the phrase "Get your own little bit", were offensive because they were sexist and objectified women.
2. Five complainants also objected that the ads were irresponsibly placed where children could see them.
1. W3 Ltd t/a Vivastreet did not believe the ads were sexist or objectified women, and said they were appropriate given the services being marketed. The purpose of the ads was to promote the personals category on their site, which included various subcategories relating to dating and personal services. The women in the ads were fully clothed and they did not believe the visuals were suggestive or sexual. They said the ads were aimed at men of a lower socio-demographic background and that the language used was common to that target market. They said the language was not rude or overtly sexist and that women used similar language in relation to men. They said the same ad had appeared in a large variety of locations in Manchester, including in newspapers, clubs and pubs as well as on bus stops and taxis since 2 March and that they had not received any complaints until May. They therefore believed it had not caused serious or widespread offence. They said that issues of offence were open to interpretation, but that it would be difficult to market the personals section of their website in any other way and that they had no intention to objectify women. They said the current media campaign had nearly ended. They understood that the bus stop ads had been removed by the media owner following complaints although they had not yet been formally notified of that.
Clear Channel responded in relation to the bus stop ad (a) and said they carefully considered the creative for the campaign in line with their internal procedures. Their view was that the creative was a play on words based on the lyrics of a popular song. They did not believe that the ad would cause serious or widespread offence, especially as the sites were in the centre of a large city and targeted a young urban audience.
2. Vivastreet did not believe the ads were irresponsibly placed. They said that given the advertising mediums used, it would not have been possible to place the ads where children would not have seen them. However, their aim was to reach the target market of men via their placement. They did not believe the ads were inappropriate for children to see, because the women were fully clothed and the ads were unlikely to capture their attention. They said they worked with media owners when planning a campaign to ensure the ads were acceptable and met their guidelines.
Clear Channel said they took the voluntary decision not to displaying the bus stop ad in sites in close proximity to schools.
1. & 2. Upheld
The ASA understood that the ads promoted Vivastreet's personals section, which included a subsection for escorts as well as dating. We acknowledged that some people would find the advertising of classified ads for escorts offensive because of the product being promoted. However, the fact the product would be offensive to some people was not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code. We therefore considered the overall impression and context of the ads.
The image of the women in the ad was no more than mildly sexual in nature and we considered that most people who saw the ad were likely to recognise that the words used derived from the well-known song Mambo No.5. However, we considered that the words "A little bit of Bella … A little bit of Layla … A little bit of Nicola … Get your own little bit at vivastreet.co.uk", in combination with the image, objectified women and implied that they could be bought on the Vivastreet website, which was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. We considered that many older children were also likely to understand that implication of the ads and for that reason (and notwithstanding that the ads were not placed in close proximity to schools) it was socially irresponsible to place the ads in outdoor media because they were likely to be seen by children. Although we understood that Vivastreet were aiming the ads at a particular target market, they appeared in outdoor media and could therefore be seen by anyone. We concluded that, in that context, the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence and that they were unsuitable for public display.
The ads breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
(Social responsibility) and
Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.
Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.
The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code. (Harm and offence).
The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told Vivastreet to take particular care when advertising the personals section of their website, including in outdoor media, to ensure they did not objectify women or imply they could be bought, to avoid causing serious or widespread offence.