Offence: Use of stereotypes

Nov 3rd '22

Marketers should ensure that the use of stereotypes in advertising will not cause serious or widespread offence. Marketers should not use stereotypes in an offensive, mocking or demeaning way.


Advertising rules state that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence and specifies that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.


  • Race

Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, cultures, nationalities, or ethnic groups, and ensure that their marketing communications are not likely to do so.


Marketers should consider the context in which their ads will be seen, and how this could influence the interpretation of the ad. In 2020 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld complaints about a  press ad for mattresses, which featured an image of a Union Jack and a cartoon mattress wearing a green surgical mask with the text “BRITISH BUILD [sic] BEDS PROUDLY MADE IN THE UK. NO NASTY IMPORTS”. Whilst the claim “BRITISH BUILD”, and the image of the Union Jack were intended to draw attention to the fact that their beds were made in the UK, the ASA considered that the phrase “NO NASTY IMPORTS”, in combination with the image of the surgical mask, was likely to be taken as a reference to the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak. In combination with the image, the reference to “nasty imports” was considered likely to be read as a negative reference to immigration or race, and as associating immigrants with disease. Therefore the ad was considered likely to cause serious and/or widespread offence on the grounds of nationality or race (Vic Smith Bedding Ltd, 11 March 2020).


The ASA will consider how viewers are likely interpret the ad, rather than the advertiser’s intention. Light-hearted depictions may sometimes be acceptable; however, humour does not in itself prevent an ad from being likely to cause offence, and humour which is derived from race is often likely to be offensive.  A Facebook post with the heading “BLACK CARS MATTER. I ASKED HOLLY FOR A HEADLINE FOR THIS A4 (Audi) AND SHE SAID: ‘ONCE YOU GO BLACK, YOU NEVER GO BACK!” and further text which stated, “MANUAL GEARBOX (BIG GEARKNOB)”, was ruled not to be acceptable despite the advertiser believing it was an inoffensive ‘pun’. In that case, the ASA decided that not only did the ad trivialise the Black Lives Matter movement, but also fetishised and objectified black men, and was likely to cause serious offence ( Ltd, 23 September 2020).


For further detailed guidance see Offence: Race 


  • Culture

Ads should not depict cultural stereotypes in a way which is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. A press ad headlined “One pistol shot and 46,000 people start running. Yes, it’s the Italian army”, was judged as being likely to cause serious or widespread offence by implying that Italians were generally cowardly (Shepherd Neame Ltd, 19 July 2006). Similarly, ads for the Channel 4 documentary Big Fat Gypsy Weddings that contained the phrase “BIGGER. FATTER. GYPSIER”, with images of a child striking an aggressive pose and two young women dressed provocatively, were considered offensive for reinforcing negative cultural stereotypes (Channel 4 Television Corporation, 3 October 2012).


  • Religion and belief

Whilst it is acceptable to reference specific beliefs and challenge other’s beliefs in advertising, this should not be done in a way which could ridicule or demean any religion or belief or otherwise cause serious or widespread offence.


The ASA received a complaint about an ad for a sex toy which appeared on 16 April, which stated “RES-ERECTION”, “Easter Treats” and “Sinful Sunday”. The ASA understood that Easter was a particularly sacred time of worship for Christians and noted that the ad played particularly on the religious provenance of the holiday, with the statements “RES-ERECTION” and “Sinful Sunday”. It therefore considered that the use of the religious holiday of Easter to advertise a sex toy was likely to cause serious offence (Honey Birdette UK Ltd, 12 July 2017).


For further guidance see Offence: Religion and belief.


  • Gender and sexual orientation

On 14 June 2019, Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice(BCAP) Code) were introduced. These rules state 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, and the interpretation of the rules is also supported by Advertising Guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.  Marketers are advised to consider this Advertising Guidance in full.


The ASA ruled against an ad for search engine optimisation services which included the text “YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE’LL DO THE SEO THING”. The ASA considered that the gendered term “girl boss”, without any other context, reinforced the impression that a female boss was an exception to the norm. In addition, the use of “girl” to refer to an adult woman reinforced the impression that a female boss was a novelty and was less serious than a man in the same position. The ASA also considered that, following the gendered reference in the first part of the sentence, “We’ll do the SEO thing” (referring to search engine optimisation) was likely to be understood to mean that females in particular needed help with technology, which reinforced a well-established stereotype (People Per Hour Ltd, 8 January 2020). For further guidance see Harm and offence: Gender stereotypes.


Ads which mock characters based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, or which use stereotypes in a way which demeans or ridicules groups or individuals, will be considered offensive or harmful. In 2012 the ASA upheld a TV ad for Paddy Power which stated “we’re going to make Ladies Day even more exciting by sending in some beautiful transgendered ladies! Spot the stallions from the mares!” and featured brief shots of people at the event while the voiceover attempted to guess their gender. Because the ad trivialised a complex issue and depicted a number of common negative stereotypes, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to cause serious offence, and condoned and encouraged harmful discriminatory behaviour (Paddy Power, 16 May 2012). See Offence: Sexual orientation and gender identity.


  • Age

Ads which mock, humiliate or degrade older people, or reinforce offensive stereotypes, are likely to be considered problematic, and advertisers should carefully consider the language and imagery used in their advertising. Ads which make offensive generalisations about older people being senile, pitiable, or incapable of carrying out certain tasks, for example, are likely to be considered problematic.


The ASA upheld a complaint about a poster which featured an elderly white woman sitting on a sofa alongside a young black man, who had his arms around her. The woman held an electronic cigarette and was looking directly at the camera. Text alongside the image stated “NO TOBACCO. NO TABOO”. The ASA considered that consumers were likely to interpret the ad to mean that smoking e-cigarettes was not a taboo issue and that in contrast, a relationship between an older woman and a younger man, and a couple of different races, was unusual or socially unacceptable. The ASA concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race and age (Nicofresh Ltd, 6 August 2014).


For additional guidance see Offence: Age.


  • Disability

Marketers should ensure that they do not include depictions of disability or illness which are likely to cause serious or widespread offence. In 2014 the ASA upheld complaints about an ad that appeared around the time of the criminal trial of the Olympic and Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, and which featured the text “money back if he walks”. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that readers would understand that to be a reference to the outcome of a criminal trial, it also considered that the text was a clear reference to Oscar Pistorius’s disability and was likely to cause serious or widespread offence because it made light of disability (Paddy Power, 19 March 2014). Similarly, in 2013 the ASA upheld a complaint about a design company website that stated, “Who said good creativity should cost an…” next to a picture of an amputee with one arm and leg. The ASA considered that the claim went further than simply being in poor taste, and that using the image for a visual pun, made light of disability, and was therefore likely to cause serious or widespread offence (B More Creative Advertising and Design Ltd, 9 January 2013).


For additional guidance see Offence: Disability.


  • Mental health

Marketers should ensure that any reference to mental illness is not socially irresponsible, or offensive. In some contexts, words such as “mad” or “bonkers” may be used in a way which makes no direct reference to mental health, and, as such, will not generally cause offence or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. However, references to mental health must be treated with care.


In 2015, the ASA investigated an online ad for a Halloween costume called “Adult Skitzo Costume”, after receiving a complaint that it reinforced negative attitudes about schizophrenia and other mental health problems. On the basis of the ad’s reference to a specific mental health problem and the use of the term “Skitzo”, in conjunction with the image of the costume, the ASA considered that the ad was likely to reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health issues, and the complaint was upheld (Abscissa.Com Ltd t/a Jokers Masquerade 28 January 2015).


Some material which may be considered offensive when used in commercial marketing may be considered unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence when used in charity marketing, where the content has an important charitable message. The ASA investigated complaints about an ad for the mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, that challenged whether the ad was irresponsible and distressing. The ad featured personal video clips of men and women laughing, smiling, and interacting with their families. On-screen text then stated, “These are the last videos of people who took their own lives” and “Find out how you could help save a life” and “#UnitedAgainstSuicide”. Whilst the ASA acknowledged the ad was likely to be distressing to some viewers, the overall message of the ad to look beyond the surface to save lives from suicide and seek support to facilitate that, meant that any distress caused was justified by the ad’s message (Campaign Against Living Miserably, 05 October 2022).


For additional guidance see Offence: Disability and Mental health: Depicting mental health conditions.


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 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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