Will there be problems when it comes to defining 'sexualised' ads?
A view from Staff

Will there be problems when it comes to defining 'sexualised' ads?

The Bailey Review, published last week, proposed restrictions on the use and display of sexualised imagery in brand advertising, including outdoor, and on the front of newspapers and magazines. We asked Marketing Society members for their views.


There shouldn't be a problem at an agency or client level - it's only difficult if you choose to make it so. It is a judgemental, rather than factual, challenge, so simply implement the best ways to make and test that judgement.

Consult a group of sensible, level-headed parents and a similar group of children and they will soon tell you whether they feel an ad, product or image is over-sexualised for a particular age group. If you can't get those groups together, ask yourself, friends and colleagues: 'Would you be happy with your child/niece seeing this ad/wearing this vest etc?' In our experience, their response and your gut feeling are probably right. Keep it simple.

The challenge to bear in mind is that the Bailey Report recommends that all young people under 16 are classified as children for all forms of marketing and communications. In that case, if an ad is fine for a 15-year-old (at whom it may be targeted) but over-sexualised for an eight-year-old, then you still shouldn't use it.


This is a well-intentioned recommendation about a very important issue, but is likely to prove difficult to implement. I spent decades in bookselling, where reaching agreement on what was suitable content for children was a nightmare. There is no absolute standard; various constituencies will hold wildly different views, and 'children' is the most heterogeneous market imaginable, with big differences in commercial awareness and sophistication across different gender and age groups.

Judging what constitutes 'sexualised imagery' won't be easy. It most certainly does not equate to 'too much flesh'; that definition could catch everything from Tom Daley advertising the Olympics to Wayne Rooney before his hair transplant. But the ASA is adept at grappling with such subjectivity, and most businesses are committed to acting responsibly and regulating themselves. The report urges 'parents to be parents'. We should also be confident in letting marketers be marketers; good ones will respond appropriately without the need for heavy-handed regulation.


Or at least, there shouldn't be. Too often, when a sensible reform is proposed, this industry hides behind a cloud of complexity and ambiguity that is a figment of its own, rather defensive, imagination. We peddle the argument that, because it would be impossible to protect vulnerable consumers with scientific accuracy, it is better not even to attempt to do so. Most right-thinking people understand the difference between a poster that might cause parental discomfort or pollute young minds, and one that would not.

Yes, there is subjectivity; yes, it is difficult to write down on a piece of paper all the advertising characteristics that might attract scrutiny; and yes, this is potentially the tip of an iceberg that reaches deep into the waters of our cherished national freedoms. But, for pity's sake, let's acknowledge that, between changing nothing and changing something, there is likely to be a constructive and workable point of consensus.


The proposed guidelines appear to be clearer and a good step forward from the past, where perhaps it has been unclear what was acceptable or not. There appears to be a common-sense approach at work that still allows a high degree of creative freedom.

The reality is that it is also the role of society to decide on what it deems socially acceptable or otherwise.

Advertisers have a duty to their consumers and society at large not to run creative and/or engage in marketing activity that is, or could be perceived as, not socially acceptable, or run the risk of damaging their brand.

In 2011, with multiple brand touchpoints, including social media and the internet, it is even more important than ever that brand-owners are cautious with activity that could be seen as unacceptable outside the UK when it goes viral on the internet. What is socially acceptable in the UK may not be so welcome in other cultures.

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