Geraint Lloyd-Taylor of Lewis Silkin: The ASA keeps raising the bar — why the Pretty Little Thing ad ban is excessive

Picture the scene, if you will. A YouTube clip begins with a woman wearing black vinyl, high-waisted chaps-style knickers and a cut-out orange bra. She drags a neon bar behind her. The camera pans up, and she turns to look over her shoulder.

It sounds like a music video, but this is a pre-roll ad for fashion brand Pretty Little Thing and it was recently banned by the ASA, which denounced it as “overly sexualised”, “likely to cause serious offence” and “irresponsible”.

Certainly, the advert featured scantily clad women in sexualised and seductive poses. But if you’ve ever watched a music channel or flicked through a fashion magazine, you might be left wondering whether you have unconsciously been “seriously offended” more times than you can count.

Catering for your audience

In the ASA’s ruling, there was neither discussion over whether the ad was acceptable to its target audience, nor adequate explanation of what social responsibility entails. The decision raises questions about why advertising content in particular – as opposed to on-demand streaming, television, magazines and so on – is so heavily regulated.

Is a blanket ban really a reasonable and proportionate measure? As a fashion retailer aimed at young women, and given the style of clothing it sells, arguably any ad for Pretty Little Thing will run the risk of provoking offence as a result of objectification and sexualisation.

The ad was largely consistent with the company’s website and brand, and the target audience would have been other women. Whether something is ‘sexy’ in an exploitative or empowering way is often a matter of interpretation.

Obviously, the objectification of women (and men) is a serious issue, and stereotypical portrayals
can also be harmful. But when a women’s fashion retailer wishes to promote its sexy clothing range to women, and uses sexualised images of women to do so, it seems excessive for the ASA to impose a ban.

Advertising and content discrepancies

The ASA ruled that the ad was likely to “cause serious offence by objectifying women”, regardless of the audience. But if this ad had been carefully targeted to ensure it was only viewed by women, and had only appeared before a music video or other content showing women in settings far more risqué than this ad, would (or should) the ASA still have regarded it as being socially irresponsible to the extent of imposing a ban?

There is a real debate to be had around sexualisation and social responsibility, but it’s vital to remember that advertising is just one very small slice of content which consumers access on a daily basis, whether via social media, platforms like YouTube, television, streaming services, websites, magazines or other printed content.

Is it appropriate or effective for advertising to be held to a different standard than most other types of content? Yes, advertising is largely unsolicited, but it can be highly targeted.

Re-assessing the role of the ASA

The ASA didn’t consider whether or not this ad constituted a harmful gender stereotype. There was no suggestion that the women in this ad were vulnerable, very young, or unhealthily thin, which would have raised slightly different issues.

The ASA appears to be raising the bar higher each year, using its power to censor British advertisements which it considers, at its own discretion, to be socially irresponsible or likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

Is this a foretaste of increased censorship by regulatory bodies with the power to censor or prohibit otherwise lawful behaviours? Is liberalism being slowly replaced by a new form of puritanism? If so, the future of advertising in the UK is a worrying prospect.

Geraint Lloyd-Taylor is a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin. Sophie Jamieson, trainee solicitor, also contributed.

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