ASA rules on objectification and harmful gender stereotypes in dating simulator ads

England and Wales

The ASA has upheld a complaint against SWAG MASHA LLC over their advertising of the online game Dream Zone: Interactive Story on the grounds that the ad objectified women, presented harmful gender stereotypes and was irresponsibly targeted.

The ruling

The game, described as a "dating and love simulator", was advertised by means of an in-game ad featuring in another, unrelated online game. According to the ruling, the offending ad is described as:

'A cartoon video of a woman being splashed in her face with water by a faulty tap. On-screen text stated “Turn it off”. She bent down and looked into a cupboard under the sink and saw a leaking pipe. Behind her was a woman wearing a towel about to hand over a mobile phone. Two buttons were shown with the options “Help her” and “Take advantage”. A super-imposed cartoon hand selected the “Take advantage” button. The woman wearing the towel bit her lip and the video shot to the first woman’s face. She displayed a startled expression and then smiled. Beneath the video, text stated “Play and have fun You choose your destiny”.

In its ruling, the ASA deemed the term “take advantage” to have sexual connotations alluding to non-consensual sexual activity, concluding that the ad was likely to cause serious offence and was therefore irresponsible and in breach of the CAP Code.

Additionally, it determined that the ad had been irresponsibly targeted, and that SWAG MASHA had failed to take appropriate steps to ensure that their ads were correctly targeted to users aged 18 and over.

Influence of gender stereotyping

Whilst the ad constituted a clear breach of CAP Code rule 4.1 on causing serious or widespread offence, the ASA also upheld the complaint under CAP Code rule 4.9, on the basis that it included a gender stereotype likely to cause harm or offence. In its ruling, the ASA confirmed that it 'considered that the ad objectified and stereotyped women by presenting them as objects in a scenario designed for the purposes of titillating viewers'.

What to look out for

Here, the ASA has stressed the importance of advertisers taking care in how they depict the people or subjects featuring in their ads to avoid the potential of causing harm.

Particular care must be exercised where it comes to the portrayal of gender-stereotypical characteristics, roles or behaviours, as well as the depiction of people who share any protected characteristics.

The ASA has repeatedly clarified that the rules on gender stereotypes are not intended to ban all depictions of gender stereotypes from ads, but only those that cause harm. In this particularly egregious example of sexual objectification, the ASA will have had no difficulty concluding that harm was likely. However, it is interesting that the ASA upheld the complaint specifically in relation to gender stereotyping, which does not appear to have been mentioned in the complaint. Even in less clear-cut cases, advertisers should be aware that gender stereotyping continues to be an area of focus for the ASA.

Further guidance on presenting gender stereotypes in advertising, published by CAP, can be found here.

The issue of stereotyping generally is also likely to remain in focus in light of the ASA’s proposal to research attitudes towards racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads, which may result in further new rules. See Tackling racial and ethnic stereotyping in ads - the role the ASA is playing - ASA | CAP.