Equality, sexism and advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint last week alleging that an advertisement was sexist.  You couldn’t make it up really – a sexist advert for a second hand car dealership! It seems calculated to play to the stereotype of the sexist car salesman.  The offending advertisement appeared as a sponsored post on the complainant's Facebook news feed. It featured an image of a woman, visible from the shoulders down, facing away from the camera and resting one knee on a countertop. She was wearing a shirt but appeared to be naked from the waist down. Text beside the woman was accompanied by the Aston Martin logo and stated "You know you're not the first, but do you really care? - ASTON MARTIN PRE OWED[sic]". The image and its strapline had been posted by Belvue Cars with the accompanying text "Need we say more?". The complainant, who considered that the advert was sexist and objectified women, challenged whether the advert was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

When the ASA challenged the advertiser, they agreed it was offensive, and Facebook also said that it breached their guidelines. The ASA considered that the advert presented a sexist and objectified view of women that was likely to cause serious and widespread offence to those who saw it as a sponsored post in the Facebook news feed for Belvue Cars.  It concluded that the advert breached rule 4.1 (Harm and offence) of the CAP Code.

As well as the used car advert, the following advert has had five million views on Youtube – it was banned in the United States.  It advertises a running watch with an attractive women running along a beach road with her breasts very visible and a young man admiring her. Women make up about half the population – possibly slightly more – is it really good business to alienate half your possible audience?

So what does the law say? The CAP Code says that advertiser should take account of the prevailing standards in society and the context in which a marketing communication is likely to appear to minimise the risk of causing harm or serious or widespread offence.  Rule 4.1 says that marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.

The CAP Code points out that marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.  The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code.  However, if it causes general offence or is obviously sexist, it will fall foul of the Code.

The CAP Code does not have legal force and the ASA’s sanctions are limited, although it can refer repeat offenders to Trading Standards for court action.

However, advertisers should also consider if their advertising complies with their duties under the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that they do not discriminate when offering goods and services.  The government’s guidance says that as a matter of good practice and good business, you should treat everyone accessing your goods, facilities or services fairly, regardless of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, and guard against making assumptions about the characteristics of individuals (eg women don’t know anything about cars, so we don’t need to aim our advertising at them).

It makes good business sense to be as open as possible, as otherwise you lose potential custom.  The fact that someone has a disability or a certain religious belief does not change the fact that they have money to spend, and are far more likely to spend it with suppliers who treat them well.

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