Social Responsibility: Body Image

Jun 14th '19

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. This rule states 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 is also supported by additional guidance on potentially harmful gender stereotypes.


The rulings referenced below were published before the new rules came into force and so will not reference these rules, however the advice below still applies and should be read alongside the new guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.


All marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society (Rule 1.3), and advertisers should ensure that they don’t portray particular body types in an irresponsible manner, imply people can only be happy if they look a certain way, or present an unhealthy body image as aspirational.


  • Pose, clothes, make-up and lighting

Whilst the use of thin models is itself not necessarily problematic, advertisers must ensure that models are not depicted in a way which makes them appear underweight or unhealthy.


Some common themes in rulings in which the ASA considered the depiction of models to be socially irresponsible are: whether the model’s bones are visible, whether the model’s pose makes them look particularly thin, and how the clothing, make-up and lighting have an impact on the appearance of the model.


An ad for Yves Saint Laurent, which featured an image of a model lying on the floor with her hands on her head, was considered socially irresponsible for depicting a model who appeared to be unhealthily thin in the ad. This was because the lighting in the ad drew attention to her chest, where her ribcage appeared prominent, and to her legs, where the large platform shoes she was wearing created a contrast with, and accentuated the thinness of her thighs. (Yves Saint Laurent SAS, 15 June 2015).


Whilst the ASA does uphold ads which depict models in a way which makes them appear unhealthily thin, the use of thin models itself is not automatically considered socially irresponsible. Another ad for Yves Saint Laurent was not upheld because, whilst the model in the ad was wearing a short dress which revealed very long and slim legs, her legs appeared to be in proportion with her body and did not appear to be unhealthily thin. (Yves Saint Laurent SAS 07 May 2014).


  • Think about targeting

In a ruling on a group of ads for swim and summer wear targeted at young people, the ASA ruled that the ads, which they felt depicted images of a model who appeared to be unhealthily thin, were likely to impress upon their audience that the images were representative of the people who might wear the advertisers clothing, and as being something to aspire to. In this ad the ASA felt that the heavy make-up around the model’s eyes, along with her stretched out pose and lighting that made her hip, rib, collar, and thigh bones very prominent, all contributed to the appearance of the model as being unhealthily thin. (Drop Dead Clothing Ltd, 09 November 2011).


  • Don’t exploit insecurities or create pressure to conform

Ads should not suggest that an individuals happiness or emotional wellbeing depends on them conforming to an idealised gender stereotypical body shape or physical features.


The ASA received multiple complaints about an ad for breast enlargement surgery on the grounds that the ad exploited young women’s insecurities about their bodies, trivialised breast enhancement surgery and portrayed it as aspirational. Whilst presenting the lifestyle of women who had cosmetic surgery  in a positive light is not necessarily problematic, The ASA considered that this went further and instead implied that the women were only able to enjoy the aspirational lifestyle shown, and to be happy with their bodies, because they had undergone that surgery. They also considered that the focus on the aspirational lifestyle and the tone of the ad, in combination with the statement “join them and thousands more” – which suggested that it was common to undergo breast enlargement and acted as an explicit call to action – had the effect of trivialising the decision to undergo that surgery (MYA Cosmetic Surgery Ltd, 17 October 2018).


Source: CAP


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.


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