Wish.com: sexually explicit in-app ads deemed offensive and inappropriately targeted
Will an ad of a sexually graphic nature be deemed to be inappropriately targeting consumers and causing harm and offence if it appears on general audience platforms?
The key takeaway
Sexually explicit ads that appear on general audience platforms (which have a broad appeal to all ages) will breach advertising rules on harm and offence. Advertisers must ensure that sexually explicit ads do not appear where a consumer would not expect to see them as they will be deemed to be inappropriately targeting consumers. Particular care must be taken with apps of appeal to children.
The e-commerce platform, Wish.com, had four ads that appeared in various apps:
- The first ad, seen in the BBC Good Food Guide app on 13 April 2020, featured images including that of a naked mannequin wearing a cape, a woman shown from the neck down wearing a corset that partially exposed her breasts and revealed nipple tassels, and an image of a reclining woman from the waist down wearing fishnet stockings and underwear.
- The second ad, seen in the Google News app on 22 April 2020, featured images including a woman wearing a jacket that partially exposed her cleavage and midriff, and a woman shown from the neck down wearing a corset that partially exposed her breasts and revealed nipple tassels.
- The third ad, seen in the Google News app on 1 May 2020, featured an image of a sex toy alongside text describing various sex toys.
- The fourth ad, seen in a Solitaire game on Google Play on 1 May 2020, featured the same images as ad 3, and an image of a reclining woman from the waist down wearing fishnet stockings and underwear.
Context Logic Inc t/a Wish.com said that their ads were comprised of content from listings provided by third-party sellers on the Wish marketplace. The techniques used to identify and remove potentially objectionable content included filtering based on keywords and tags. Additionally, Wish.com stated that they had worked with an ad partner who had also imposed measures, including filtering, to prevent Wish ads from appearing in inappropriate forums.
In respect of the ads under investigation, Wish.com agreed that the keyword filters and image analysis used by Wish.com’s ad partner had not sufficiently prevented the ads from being displayed in general audience forums. It had therefore taken action to halt UK campaigns with the ad partner in May 2020. They stated that they would not be advertising with the ad partner until they had more confidence in the ad partner’s ability to be able to identify mature content and prevent it from being shown in general audience forums. Wish.com also agreed that the complained-of ads may not have been appropriate for all forums, such as those where the audience was largely comprised of minors. However, they did not agree that the ads were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.
With regards to ad 1, Immediate Media, the creators of the BBC Good Food app, said that the ad had been shown as a result of the programmatic advertising that was in place. Programmatic advertising allows advertisers to retarget users based on their visiting history and this had been used by Wish.com. Immediate Media detailed the preventative measures they have in place and stated that action had been taken to prevent offensive ads appearing on their websites and apps, which included blocking certain product categories and monitoring images. They did not consider the ad to be suitable to be presented to users of BBC Good Food.
The complaints were upheld. While the ASA was satisfied that the ads featured items that were available on Wish.com’s website and the images were relevant to the products sold, it considered that the ads were overtly sexual and contained explicit nudity. Additionally, consumers using the apps for recipes, the news and online games would not expect to see such sexually explicit content. The ASA therefore concluded that in those contexts each of the ads were likely to cause both serious and widespread offence, in breach of CAP Code rule 4.1 (Harm and offence).
Regarding the complaint that the ads on the Google News and Google Play apps were not responsibly targeted, the ASA also upheld this complaint as, given the content of the apps, they were likely to have a broad appeal to all ages including children. Therefore, any ads that appeared within the apps should have been suitable for children and, given the sexually explicit nature of the ads, this was not the case. The ASA acknowledged that Wish.com and its ad partner had used measures such as keyword filters and image analysis to try to target the ads to a suitable audience. However, these measures had not prevented the ads being shown in media where children were likely to be part of the audience. Due to the ads containing explicit sexual images and that they had been placed in apps that were likely to be used by children, the ASA concluded that the ads had been placed irresponsibly and breached CAP Code rule 1.3 (Social responsibility).
Why is this important?
The ruling highlights that the ASA has zero tolerance on sexually explicit content appearing in a context where a consumer would not normally expect to come across such material – especially if the ads are being shown in apps that were actually “likely to be used by children”. If the ads reflected browsing history and the device being used was not a shared one, then perhaps the limitations or inefficacy of the measures undertaken by Wish.com and its ad partner may have been considered more favourably. However, as devices can be shared by multiple users, the measures employed by both Wish.com and its ad partner were deemed ineffectual.
Any practical tips?
The ASA’s focus is on the type and appeal of the applicable platform itself. Advertisers and brands must ensure that ads with sexually explicit content must not be shown in, eg, an app which potentially could be used by children or where a consumer was not expecting to see such content. In short, ads need to be made appropriate for all audiences of the platform.