Case Studies

Study of a nude on a poster

Mr A and his wife spent half an hour waiting with their grandchildren for a bus on a busy Saturday afternoon.  They had expected to feel tired and frustrated, but what they hadn't counted on was feeling offended, embarrassed and angry. The reason? A large billboard facing them with a poster for 'Opium', a perfume produced by Yves Saint Laurent Beaute. The advertisement was of a naked women lying on her back, with just one breast covered.



Mr and Mrs A felt it inappropriate for their young grandchildren to view such an image and were angry that they were not in a position to prevent it, particularly as the billboard was in their local town. Mr A wrote and complained to the Advertising Standards Authority.


According to the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, advertisements should not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The advertiser, in this case, Yves Saint Laurent Beaute Ltd, is responsible for complying with the codes.


In order for the ASA to deal with such complaints and reflect public opinion, regular research is carried out into attitudes of taste and decency. After all, what may offend one person may be acceptable to another.  Indeed, this was reflected in the vast amount of media coverage this advertisement received, with some members of the public finding the image beautiful rather than degrading.


The ASA also looks carefully at the effects of where an advertisement is placed. In this case, the Opium ad had been placed in women's magazines for nearly 6 months before it became a poster. Whilst in these magazines, it only received four complaints, and although they were investigated, the complaint was not upheld, deeming the advertisements to be in an appropriate medium.


Once a poster on the high street billboards, however, it became the 2nd most complained about advertisement of all time, with 948 complaints. Like Mr A’s complaint to the ASA, they were about the offensive image, the degradation of women and unsuitability of the ad in a public place.


The ASA invited the advertiser to respond to the complaints. Yves Saint Laurent Beaute Ltd explained that it believed the image to be sensual and aesthetic and had not intended to offend the public. Despite this, the ASA Council came to the conclusion that the advertisement was sexually suggestive and likely to cause serious or widespread offence and the complaint was upheld. The advertiser was told to withdraw the ad immediately. As a consequence of the adjudication, Yves Saint Laurent Beaute Ltd has to pre-clear all Opium perfume posters with the Committee of Advertising Practice Copy Advice team for two years.
Related Codes:
  • 5.1 Marketing communications should contain nothing that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability. Compliance with the Code will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards of decency.
  • 5.2 Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily conflicting with 5.1 above. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.
  • 5.3 The fact that a particular product is offensive to some people is not sufficient grounds for objecting to a marketing communication for it.

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