The use of sexual imagery or language in advertising often draws complaints. This might include implicit or explicit references to sexual intercourse, gratuitous images, or innuendo. References to sexual intercourse, masturbation or oral sex can offend, especially if they do not have any relevance to the product being advertised, or are too explicit.
Some mild sexual content may be mild enough to be considered acceptable in untargeted media whereas other material should appear in targeted media only. Some material is likely to cause serious or widespread offence regardless of where it appears and 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.
Light-hearted innuendo might be acceptable in some circumstances. An ad for toiletries based on wordplay around the word “balls” was considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence in appropriately targeted media (Unilever UK Ltd, 10 July 2013).
However advertisers must ensure that any innuendo used will not be likely to cause serious or widespread harm or offence, and that it is targeted appropriately. A radio ad for an electrical store in which the voiceover stated “Yes, everyone’s going to Budd Electrical! It’s B, U, double D and we all love a double D, right? …” was ruled against by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2016. Whilst the ad did not contain any nudity and was not overtly sexual presented women as sexual objects by inviting listeners to focus on their bra size, which was also unrelated to the service. (Budd Electrical Ltd, 07 September 2016).
Sexual themes or sexually explicit visuals are particularly likely to offend if the choice of medium means that an ad is likely to be seen by people outside the target market.
In 2014, the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad which showed a couple having sex, which appeared on the advertiser’s Twitter feed, because the content was considered too strongly sexual to appear in an untargeted medium (giffgaff Ltd, 19 November 2014).
An ad for sex toys was not considered problematic by the ASA because it appeared in a catalogue targeted at, and distributed to adults. The ads were included towards the back of the catalogue with a prominent disclaimer on the previous page which warned customers who might be offended that the next page contained “adult material” as well as an age restriction which said “Only for persons over 18 years of age”. In that context, the ASA concluded the ads were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence amongst those who saw them (Kingstown Associates Ltd, 12 April 2017).
Even in targeted ads, advertisers should exercise care when using overtly sexual content as explicit sexual images are rarely likely to be acceptable. In 2012 the ASA upheld a complaint against an ad on a dating website that featured various images of men engaged in sexual acts (BangBros.com Inc, 19 December 2012). Whilst acknowledging the website contained adult content which was available to subscribers, it noted the ad was also visible to guest users, who may have viewed the material in a different context.
A poster campaign that referred to well-endowed men, ejaculation and S&M sex was considered offensive (Halewood International, 16 June 2004). Marketers should also be extremely careful to ensure their ads do not appear to condone sexual violence (Nokia UK Ltd, 3 March 2004).
See Sexual violence.
Sexualisation and objectification
Advertisers must ensure that they do not use sexual content in a way which objectifies people.
the ASA upheld a complaint about an ad for an estate agency which pictured a man’s torso and stated “WOW, WHAT A PACKAGE”, and further text covering his crotch, because they 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 (Lewis Oliver Estates Ltd, 11 July 2018).
On 2 January 2018 Code rules 4.8 and 4.13 were added to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code and UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) respectively. These rules state that ads should not portray or represent anyone who is, or seems to be, under 18 years old in a sexual way. 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.
Rulings published before the 2 January may refer to the age of a child being under 16, however the new rules strengthen the existing position and ensure protection for those under 18, rather than those under 16. When looking at these rulings please be aware that the ASA will now consider whether models look, or are under 18.
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 Advice Online entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.
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