Children: Sexual imagery

Jun 24th '24

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code does not prevent marketers from using images of children but they should do so in a socially responsible manner. Marketing communications should not portray or represent anyone who is, or seems to be, under 18 years old in a sexual way (CAP Code rules and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) Code rules). This does not apply to ads whose principal function is to promote the welfare of, or to prevent harm to, under 18s, provided any sexual portrayal or representation is not excessive. These rules were added to the Codes on 2 January 2018. Rulings prior to this date referred to the age of a child being under 16 but the new rules strengthened the existing position and gave protection to those under 18, rather than those under 16.  


The other general rules from the Codes also apply, and it’s important that ads featuring imagery of children must be sociable responsible, and must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence.


The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a number of complaints against imagery used in listings for clothing, often for swimwear and underwear ads, which has presented models who are, or appear to be, under 18 in a sexual way. When assessing ads the ASA will consider whether models seem to be younger than 18, as well as their real age. It is not acceptable to present models in a sexual way if they could appear to be under 18, even if they are aged over 18. (American Apparel (UK) Ltd, 18 March 2015).


If a model could appear to be under 18, marketers should consider the way the model is presented to ensure that they do not appear in a sexual way. The clothing, make up, pose and gaze of models may be taken into consideration, alongside any text. The ASA ruled against two ads for swimwear products featuring models who both appeared below the age of 11 and were clearly children. Although neither ad was overtly sexual, both models were wearing make-up and were shown in poses that were adult in tone for a model under 18, which it considered had the effect of portraying them in a sexual way. For example, the models were shown with their heads tilted and raising an arm to touch their hair, or looking directly into the camera. One of the ads had been cropped so the model’s face was partially visible, which the ASA considered anonymised the model and focused attention on her body, while another image taken from behind had the effect of sexualising the model as her bottom and legs were the main focus. (Guangzhou YH Sporting Goods Co Ltd, 19 October 2022 and Grandbing Technology Co Ltd, 24 January 2024).


A complaint was also upheld for an ad for a clothing retailer featuring a brand ambassador, Alabama Barker, who was 16 at the time of the ad’s shooting and who the ASA considered looked below 18 in the ad. She appeared in a series of images modelling clothes from her collection including short, tight-fitting dresses. She was seen in various poses that the ASA considered were sexual, such as sucking a lollipop, lying on a bed whilst licking her lips, and spraying a water hose which was positioned between her legs. It also considered the text “channel that teen dream realness with barely-there micro mini skirts” further highlighted Ms Barker’s young age. The ad was found to irresponsibly depict a person under 18 in a sexual way. ( Ltd, 10 August 2022).


The wider context of how images of children are presented in ads will also be considered. The ASA investigated an ad featuring a girl modelling a bikini who appeared to be less than 11 years of age, and considered that her pose was quite adult. However, the ad also included several images of objects including a jockstrap, facial roller and balloon ties, some of which were ambiguous and not easily identifiable in nature, with no explanation or context provided. Some of the objects were phallic shaped and could have been interpreted as sexual in nature, particularly in the absence of explanation. The ASA considered the collection of items portrayed together added to the impression that the ad was of a sexual nature and by association, therefore, the girl was sexualised. (Whaleco UK Ltd, 1 November 2023).


On the other hand, the ASA did not uphold complaints against an ad which featured a model wearing Playboy branded clothing, who was aged 28 at the time. The ASA considered that although the model had a youthful appearance, she did not look under 18. She wore casual clothing including a long coat with only her midriff exposed, and her poses were not sexual in nature and were in keeping with typical poses seen in fashion advertising. (Missguided Ltd, 21 October 2020). Similarly, the ASA considered a 27 year old model in an ad for a pyjama set was unlikely to be considered as being a child or teenager, despite her youthful face and the playfulness of her pose. It therefore did not uphold the challenge that the ad depicted someone appearing under age 18 in a sexual way. (Stripe & Stare Ltd, 8 March 2023


Social responsibility and offence

Marketing communications must also be sociable responsible and must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. In 2024 the ASA ruled against an in-app ad for a mobile game that depicted a child in a sexual way. The ad portrayed an apparently incestuous sexual relationship between an uncle and his niece, appearing to show them engaging in sado-masochistic, sexual behaviour together. It included flashbacks to a memory from her childhood, which had overtones of a child being viewed as a sexual object and groomed by an adult relative. The ASA considered the ad was irresponsible and likely to cause serious and widespread offence. (Gamehaus Network Technology Co Ltd, 24 January 2024).


Imagery of inanimate objects or depictions of partially human characters, such as in cartoons and anime, can still breach the Code if they appear to portray a child in a sexual manner. A Twitter ad for a game featured an image of a young woman or girl in a cage with shackled wrists and ankles, and with torn clothes which partially exposed the side of her breast. Although she had a tail, rabbit ears and was depicted in anime/cartoon style, she was still considered recognisable as a young woman or girl and portrayed in a sexual way. The ASA considered her character, who had a fearful expression, had also been depicted as a stereotypical sexual object who was an imprisoned and helpless victim, an irresponsible gender stereotype likely to cause harm too. (Oasis Games Ltd, 28 September 2022). Another ad by the same marketer was also banned for depicting series of images of anime or manga-style characters, all of whom were depicted in revealing clothing, or in a state of undress and appeared to be under 18. (Oasis Games Ltd, 23 November 2022). Both ads were considered irresponsible and likely to cause serious and widespread offence.


Additionally, in 2023 the ASA upheld a complaint about an image of a naked infant doll with realistic genitalia, which appeared on a news website. Although the advertised doll was a mannequin for medical training, the ad did not provide any information about its function. Because an ad for this type of product was unlikely to be expected by viewers on a news website, the ASA considered that there was a high risk of consumers receiving the impression that the advertised product was a sex doll in the form of an infant. It concluded the ad was socially irresponsible, and likely to cause serious and widespread offence. ( Singapore E-commerce Private Ltd, 20 September 2023).


Adult products and themes

Marketers of products with adult themes should be particularly careful to avoid using imagery of people who may appear to be under 18, as the context of the product itself could mean they are likely to be perceived in a sexual way. An ad for an adult video chat app, which the ASA considered was likely to contain adult content that was sexual in nature, featured an image of a young woman lying down. A recording button and text stating ‘Live’ gave the impression she was taking part in a live call. The ASA considered her overall demeanour, including her facial features, smooth skin, and hairstyle, gave her the appearance of being under-18. In one image she also appeared fearful and had an air of vulnerability, as she was covering her mouth and looking away from the camera. The ASA concluded that including a model who appeared to be under 18, both using and promoting an adult service, irresponsibly portrayed her in a sexual way. (Mitu Inc Ltd, 30 August 2023).


An ad for an online introduction agency was also found to portray a person who appeared to be under 18 in a sexual way. Although the ASA understood the model was 27, it considered she looked considerably younger in the ad and appeared to be below 18. She was petite with smooth skin, and was looking slightly away from the camera from behind what seemed to be a white lace curtain, which gave her an air of shyness and innocence. Text underneath the image stated, “Beautiful women seeking older men” which the ASA considered further underlined her youthful appearance and was likely to be seen as sexualised. The ad breached rules (Cellar Door Ltd, 1 June 2022


Symbols of youth

Symbols of youth, such as school uniforms, strongly risk being unacceptable if used in a sexual context. In 2008 an airline ad, featuring a young woman standing in a class room and wearing a cropped school uniform, was considered unacceptable because it was offensive and socially irresponsible to link schoolgirls with sexually provocative dress and behaviour (Ryanair Ltd, 30 January 2008). Similarly, a complaint was also upheld in 2010 against an ad that featured the phrase “back 2 school party” with the claim “come see our sexy schoolgirl staff and entertainers”, in conjunction with an image of a woman dressed as a school girl. The ASA considered the ad appeared to link teenage girls with sexually provocative behaviour. (Spearmint Rhino Company Europe Ltd, 10 November 2010).


Marketers should also be mindful of targeting, and ensure that as well as ensuring that ads do not sexualise people who are, or seen to be under 18 year olds, the placement of ads which include any sexual content is targeted appropriately. See ‘Children: Targeting’.


Source: CAP


About CAP

The CAP is the sister organisation of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes.


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 ASA. CAP’s AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


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