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Sexualisation and objectification in advertising

Published on 02 August 2021

Where does the ASA draw the line between “sexy” advertising and sexual objectification?

The key takeaway

Sexual imagery is allowed in advertising – just make sure you don’t cross the line into sexual objectification. Warning bells should go off if you’re intending to use disembodied bodies in your ad, or sexualised imagery in a situation not relevant to the product.

The background

In February 2021 the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) published an advice note on the compliance risks associated with treating a person as an object of sexual desire in marketing communications.

Sexual objectification is not allowed by the ASA and is in direct contravention of both the CAP and BCAP Codes. The advice note highlights a general rule that if an ad is likely to have the effect of objectifying someone by using their physical features to draw attention to an unrelated product, then this has the potential to lead to harm, such as body image issues, as well as the potential to negatively impact a person’s mental health. However, the note does point out that sexual imagery itself does not necessarily constitute objectification and points to certain complaints whereby the ASA found that whilst the ads featured potentially “distasteful imagery” they fell on the right side of the line between “sexy” and “sexist”.

The development

The advice note helps to clarify the distinction between what is “sexy” without being classed as objectification and what would stray over the line into being sexist. It does so by highlighting certain upheld rulings across two key areas: (i) disembodied bodies (ie those ads that reduced a person to a body or a body part); and (ii) appropriate dress (ie the appropriateness of clothing, or lack thereof, is dependent on the situation and how the person in little clothing is portrayed).

Disembodied bodies

The note details several rulings that help to illustrate what would be objectification.

The ruling on Lewis Oliver Estates Ltd related to an ad for an estate agency which featured the image of a topless man’s torso and thighs with the tagline “wow what a package” placed over the man’s crotch. The ASA stated that the image in no way related to the services being advertised and that, while the pose was “mildly suggestive”, the man was portrayed in such a way which invited viewers to focus on his body.

In the ruling on Silks (Glasgow) Ltd, a lingerie store, the ad featured an image of a woman wearing lingerie in a sexually suggestive pose. This, combined with the fact that the model’s head was not shown, led the ASA to rule that the image invited viewers to view the woman as a sexual object. The fact that the model was only wearing lingerie had no impact on the ASA’s decision because this was relevant to the business and the products being advertised.

The note further illustrates the fine line between compliance and non-compliance referring to a full-page print ad for a perfume. The ad featured a topless woman with a fully dressed man covering the woman’s breasts and stomach with his arms. The ASA did not consider this ad to breach the CAP Code due to the image being highly stylized, the woman’s face was visible, and she appeared confident, in control and unified with the man as a couple. It also considered the image to be typical of perfume ads and not out of place in magazines and newspapers aimed at general readers.

Dress appropriately

The note distinguishes that lack of clothing does not necessarily result in sexual objectification, which the ruling on Fontem Ventures BV (trading as Blu) highlights. The ad featured a naked woman positioned so that the top of her buttocks was visible as she looked back over her shoulder. The ASA considered that the tone of the ad was sensual and sexually suggestive to the point that some may find it distasteful, but that the ad was not sexually explicit. However, importantly, the ASA did not think that the ad portrayed the model as a sexual object and as such this was just on the right side of the line.

Conversely, in their ruling on Croftscope Ltd (trading as BOCA), the ASA determined that an advert for toothpaste, which featured the image of the body of a naked woman wearing only a pair of strappy heels, reclining in a chair with one leg placed on top of a table by the window and the other on the ground placed significant emphasis on the model’s body in a highly sexualised manner, therefore inviting viewers to view her as a sexual object.

The note also highlights that the appropriateness of the lack of clothing is also dependent on the situation. In its ruling on Meridan BP the ASA censured an ad for building products and materials which featured a woman with an exposed midriff and a tool belt. This was done on the basis that it was unlikely to be recognised as typical or appropriate attire in which to undertake building work, and that the sexualised image bore no relevance to the products being advertised and as such was sexually objectifying.

Why is this important?

The note helps to clarify what sexual imagery is acceptable, and what isn’t, in advertising. The main theme is that advertisers should keep sexualised imagery relevant to the product in order to avoid complaints or negative rulings.

Any practical tips?

Don’t put unnecessary focus on body parts and keep the use of sexual imagery relevant to the product or service being advertised. And consider yourself lucky if you’re in the fashion or perfume industry – you’re likely to have more leeway than if you’re advertising building products.