Objectification is the act of treating a person as if they are an object, rather than an autonomous individual. Sexual objectification in advertising treats a person in an ad as an object of sexual desire. Sexual imagery is not necessarily objectification, and individuals have different lines for where sexual imagery causes offence, but objectification can lead to harm, such as body image issues and negatively impacting a person’s mental health.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) Council has made several rulings on complaints about sexual objectification, but where is the line between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexist’?
Reducing a person to just their body is a hallmark of sexual objectification. One might wonder how a person could be “reduced” to a body, since showing a person surely involves showing their body. True enough, but this can lead to ads that only show specific body parts, such as an estate agent’s ad which featured a topless man’s torso and thighs only, and a lingerie ad which featured a model whose head did not make it onto the poster. The ASA Council found both ads in breach of the Advertising Rules.
However, there is always a fine line and the ASA Council did not find an ad which featured a topless woman, with a fully-dressed man whose arms were covering her breasts and stomach, to be in breach of the Advertising Rules. They considered the image to be highly stylized, the woman’s face was visible and she appeared confident, in control and unified with the man as a couple.
As we saw above, a lack of clothing is not necessarily sexual objectification. An ad which featured a naked woman so that the top of her buttocks were visible as she looked over her shoulder standing far back from floor-to-ceiling windows was not found to be in breach, as the ASA Council considered it was sexually suggestive, but not sexually explicit. In contrast, an ad which showed a naked woman wearing only a pair of strappy heels sitting in a chair, with the arm of the chair obscuring her groin area, with her legs apart reclining directly in front of a window was considered voyeuristic and sexually explicit.
Appropriate clothing also depends on the situation. The ASA Council considered an ad for building products which featured a woman with an exposed midriff and tool belt. In their response, the advertiser argued that construction workers often wore shorts and vests, especially in the summer, and female construction workers could dress in this manner. The ASA Council considered that the woman’s outfit was unlikely to be recognised as typical or appropriate attire for carrying out building work, and that the sexualised image bore no relevance to the product, and therefore found that it was sexually objectifying.
Stay on topic
Keeping sexualised imagery relevant to the product can help keep ads from crossing the line. While one might expect ads for fashion to be somewhat sexual, in addition to estate agents and building products, the ASA Council has seen ads with highly sexualised models for tyres, pizza deals, masking tape, tea cakes, and artificial grass.
As with most considerations under the Advertising Rules, content and context plays a significant role in judging whether an image is likely to be acceptable or not.
Source: Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP)
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