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ASA ruling on phrases which may have a sexual connotation – Boohoo.com

Published on 21 January 2020

How easy is it for a campaign to be deemed “socially irresponsible” where it refers to a phrase which could possibly have a sexual connotation?

The key takeaway

Even if a word could be used in a legitimate (here, fashion) context, brands have to be extremely careful that the message cannot be interpreted in a socially irresponsible way. This is particularly the case where a young audience is involved.

The ad

A marketing email from Boohoo, received on 15 July 2019, featured the subject heading “Send Nudes [eyes emoji]”. The body of the email contained a photo of a female model wearing a beige jacket with the words “Send nudes. Set the tone with new season hues” written across the image.

The complaint

The complainant challenged whether the reference to “send nudes” was socially irresponsible.

The response

Boohoo.com UK Ltd said that their use of the word “nude” was solely to describe the colour resembling that of the wearer’s skin. They said they targeted their customers by sending them the latest fashion trends, including the trend for “nude” colours. They said that the word was widely used by other retailers in relation to apparel. The Boohoo brand targeted customers aged 16 to 24 years old.

To sign up to Boohoo’s website, the terms of use stipulated that the individual must be at least 18 years of age. The ad was sent to individuals who had agreed to Boohoo’s terms of use. It should not have been sent to any individual under 16 years of age.

The decision

The ASA upheld the complaint. 

It acknowledged that the term “nude” was commonly described to refer to colours that were similar to some people’s skin tones. However, at the same time, the phrase “send nudes” was likely to be understood as referring to requests for sexual photos, which could be a form of sexual harassment. The ASA also noted that an increased pressure to share such photos has been linked to negative outcomes for young people. 

Boohoo’s target market was aged 16 to 24. The ad had only been sent to those who self-declared that they were over 18. However, given the general price point of Boohoo’s clothing and the age of the target market, there was also likely to be some overlap with even younger teenagers who aspired to looks associated with a slightly older age group. The ASA acknowledged that the ad was playing on a well-known phrase to highlight a fashion trend, but considered the specific reference chosen had the effect of making light of a potentially harmful social trend. Furthermore, the subject heading “send nudes” in the email, without any further context, was likely to be disconcerting for some recipients, particularly those who might have personal experience of being asked to “send nudes”.

In the context of an ad aimed at a relatively young audience who were more likely to be harmfully affected by pressure to share sexual images of themselves, the ASA held that the reference to “send nudes” was socially irresponsible and breached the CAP Code (Edition 12) Rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and 5.1 (Children).

Why is this important?

This decision highlights that brands, especially brands which have a relatively young audience, will be coming under increasing pressure to prepare ads in a responsible way and must take particular care to avoid causing potential harm to children/young people.

Any practical tips?

In order to determine whether an ad or promotion is irresponsible, the ASA will be taking into account the medium and context in which an ad appears, the product being advertised and the audience that’s likely to see it as well as continuing to monitor the prevailing standards in society. Retailers and brands should take this and other recent ASA rulings into consideration and adapt accordingly.