Offence: Nudity

Oct 26th '22

The use of nudity in advertising often draws complaints. Providing the level of nudity is not explicit or gratuitous, and is relevant to the product, some nudity may be considered acceptable however explicit nudity, particularly if that nudity is sexual in nature, should appear in targeted media only.


Certain material is likely to cause serious or widespread offence regardless of the media it appears in. Ads which use sexual content in a way which could be considered objectifying, demeaning, exploitative, degrading or humiliating are always likely to cause serious or widespread offence.


  • Offence

Marketing communications must not cause serious or widespread offence (Code rule 4.1). Gratuitous or sexually explicit nudity is likely to cause offence and should be targeted to an audience that is unlikely to be offended. Content which objectifies or demeans people, or includes harmful gender stereotypes, will be considered likely to cause serious or widespread offence wherever the ad appears. For further information see Offence: Sexualisation and objectification and Harm and offence: Gender Stereotyping.


Some nudity may be less likely to be considered offensive if the nudity is relevant to the advertised product, for example lingerie and beauty products. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) considered a perfume ad which appeared in The Stylist, Sunday Times Style and the Evening Standard ES Magazine. The ad included a topless woman, with her breasts and stomach covered by the arms and hands of a man who stood behind her. Some complaints had interpreted the image as a reference to male dominance over women, however the ASA noted that the woman appeared confident and in control. The ASA considered that the image was fairly typical of perfume ads and was not out of place in magazines and newspapers aimed at general readers (EuroItalia s.r.l., 06 March 2019). See also H&M Hennes & Mauritz UK Ltd, 4 April 2012 and Calvin Klein, 18 January 2012.


However, trying to make nudity relevant by, for example, using puns or sexual innuendo is unlikely to render the ad acceptable. One ad for fastener cover caps featured a naked woman photographed from the back, with the shot slightly angled from below, wearing ski boots, gloves and skis, and carrying ski poles. Red text stating “COVER UP” partially obscured her bottom. The ASA considered the female nudity was gratuitous, and that the nudity and styling, as well as the woman’s pose, was degrading to women and likely to cause serious offence (Pro-Dec Products Ltd t/a ScrewCaps UK, 29 November 2017).


Marketers should be aware that advertising products for which nudity is relevant does not mean they have absolute freedom to depict nudity and should ensure that any nudity does not degrade people, is not excessively explicit or gratuitous and is appropriately targeted. The ASA upheld complaints about a poster and Twitter ad for Adidas sports bras, which depicted a grid of multiple images of women’s bare breasts, on the grounds that they were inappropriately targeted and were likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The ASA acknowledged that the intention of the ads was to show that women’s breasts differed in shape and size, which was relevant to the sports bras being advertised, but nonetheless considered that the depiction of and focus on naked breasts was likely to be seen as explicit nudity which should not have appeared in a poster or on a Twitter feed (Adidas UK Ltd, 11 May 2022).


In 2015 the ASA ruled against a poster for a nude lap dancing club in Croydon. The image depicted a naked woman lying down from behind with two men looking at her breasts and crotch. Whilst the image was relevant to the club advertised, the ASA considered that it was likely to be seen as objectifying and demeaning women, was likely to cause serious or widespread offence, and was unsuitable for public display (WDV Talent Agency-London Ltd t/a Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, 16 September 2015).


Where nudity is irrelevant to the product, it is likely to be considered problematic. Complaints about an ad for toothpaste which featured a naked woman wearing heels were upheld by the ASA, who considered that the nudity and pose of the model, and the provocative nature of the ad, bore no relevance to the product. Because the ad placed visual emphasis on the model’s body in a sexualised manner and the nudity was unrelated to the product, the ASA considered that the ad invited readers to view the model’s body as a sexual object, and therefore, objectified women and was likely to cause serious or widespread offence (Croftscope Ltd, 27 November 2017). See also ( UK Ltd, 16 February 2022).


  • Targeting

The choice of medium is also important; marketers can try and avoid causing serious or widespread offence by ensuring that they use a medium suitable to reach the target audience. Visuals that are unsuitable for relatively untargeted media such as posters may be acceptable in more targeted media. Advertisers should be aware that explicit nudity, particularly if it is also sexually provocative, is rarely considered acceptable unless the ad is very specifically targeted. The ASA investigated a complaint about an ad for bras which appeared on snapchat. The complainant felt that the nudity in the ad was offensive and degrading towards women and that it was irresponsibly targeted where children could see it. Whilst the ASA considered that the level of nudity was not overly sexualised or objectifying, and was related to the product, because the ad was likely to have been seen by children it ruled that it had been irresponsibly targeted (AN & Associates t/a, 08 November 2017). Similarly, posters for sports bras which featured bare breasts, and breasts with the nipples pixelated, were considered unsuitable for untargeted outdoor media. The ad also featured on the advertiser’s Twitter page, and, because explicit nudity of this type was not in keeping with its usual content the ASA also concluded that the ad should not have appeared in that media (Adidas UK Ltd, 11 May 2022).


Even if an ad is sent to existing customers who may be familiar with the nature of the products sold, explicit sexual imagery which is more explicit than the target audience is likely to expect will be considered problematic. The ASA upheld complaints about email ads for an online underwear retailer which featured images of models wearing underwear through which their penises were visible. Although recipients of the ads would have visited the retailer’s website and subsequently subscribed to their mailing list, the images featured in the ads were more sexually explicit than the images generally featured on the website. In addition, the subject line of the emails “Important Announce [sic] – Black Friday 2021”, and “The website is OPEN. GO!” did not make it clear to recipients that the ads would contain sexually explicit content. Because the images were sufficiently explicit to be likely to cause serious offence, and they did not appear against an established context of similar content on the website, the ASA concluded that the ads were likely to cause serious offence to some recipients (Box Menswear Ltd, 16 February 2022).


Ads that feature a degree of nudity that is neither explicit nor sexualised are less likely to be considered problematic even in untargeted media (The Ambassador Theatre Group, 22 February 2012). Marketers are nevertheless urged to be mindful of local sensitivities when featuring nudity or potentially provocative images; posters that appear close to schools or places of worship risk offending the likely audience.


  • Responsibility

The ASA has considered many ads which feature explicit or gratuitous nudity irresponsible, as well as offensive.


An ad for soup, which featured a naked man lying down with a bottle with the text “#NOTHINGTOHIDE” superimposed over his genitals was ruled against by the ASA. The ASA noted that while the pose was only mildly suggestive in nature, most of the man’s head was cropped out of the picture, which invited viewers to focus on his body. In addition,  the nudity was irrelevant to the product and the text “#nothingtohide” was likely to be understood as a pun about nudity and a joke about male genitalia, which some might consider sexually suggestive. Taking these factors into account, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to have the effect of objectifying the man by using his physical features to draw attention to an unrelated product, and therefore, the ad was irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence (Renourish Ltd, 06 April 2022).


The ASA also considered that an online ad for a T-shirt was irresponsible and likely to cause offence because it objectified and sexualised women. The images featured a model wearing the t-shirt with only thong-style bikini bottoms and trainers, in poses which focused more on the model’s body than the product. The ASA considered that the nudity shown was not relevant to the product and that the images did not show the product as it would usually be worn ( UK Ltd, 16 February 2022).


Marketers should bear in mind that they could be made to pre-vet their posters for two years if they use a poster found to be offensive.


Source: Committee of Advertising Practice (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 ASA.


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