The authors thank Zarah Bhatti for her contributions to this post.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned two ads for breach of the rule prohibiting the use of gender stereotypes in advertising, which was introduced in 2019. We commented at the time that these restrictions were likely to see a rise in number of complaints being handled by the regulator.

The rule, which features in both the CAP Code (for non-broadcast ads e.g. in newspapers or in social media posts online) and BCAP Code (for broadcast ads e.g. on TV or radio), states that advertising “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

Complaints were made against ad campaigns for Calvin Klein and GIRLvsCANCER, a charity. The ASA held that elements of both campaigns were offensive and “inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium”. Both were consequently held to be in breach of the gender stereotypes rule.

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein’s ‘Calvins or nothing’ campaign saw the release of a number of ads, including a poster featuring singer-songwriter and dancer, FKA twigs and two posters featuring model, Kendall Jenner. The first ad showed FKA twigs with a denim shirt drawn halfway across her body, exposing the side of her bare buttocks and part of her breast. The second two ads showed Jenner firstly in jeans with her arms folded across her bare chest and then in underwear, lying on her back. After investigating the complaints made about the three ads, the ASA banned the ad featuring FKA twigs; however, the two featuring Jenner remained unscathed.

The ASA said of the ad featuring FKA twigs that the “image’s composition placed viewers’ focus on the model’s body rather than on the clothing being advertised”. In their view, the ad presented FKA twigs as a “stereotypical sexual object” and “centred on FKA twigs’ physical features rather than the clothing”. The ASA concluded that FKA twigs’ facial expression, along with her nudity in the ad, gave the image “an overall sexual overture”. As such, they considered that the ad was “overtly sexual and was not suitable for display” and was “likely to cause serious offence”.

On the other hand, the ASA stated with respect to the ad of Jenner in jeans that “while Jenner was partially nude, all sensitive body areas were covered, and the image was no more than mildly sexual” and that the ASA Code had therefore not been breached. The ASA considered that the second Jenner ad, featuring Jenner in her underwear, was “sexually suggestive”; however, it held that the ASA’s placement restrictions to limit the likelihood of children viewing the poster had been applied to the image and so the ad was compliant.

Harmful stereotype or a double standard?

FKA twigs has recently defended her Calvin Klein campaign and has criticised the ASA’s decision to ban the ad, claiming that the ban promotes a double standard. In a statement published on Instagram, FKA twigs countered: “in light of reviewing other campaigns past and current of this nature, I can’t help but feel there are some double standards here”, referring here to a similar Calvin Klein campaign featuring actor Jeremy Allen White. White’s campaign featured him topless and in tight underwear. Toby King, a spokesperson for the ASA, revealed that the authority had received three complaints regarding the ads featuring White. King added that while the ASA was reviewing the complaints, the ads themselves were not currently being investigated.

The ASA’s decision regarding the FKA twigs ad has caused quite a stir, with British Vogue describing it as “almost impressively backwards logic”. The controversy begs the question: what exactly is a harmful gender stereotype? Is labelling ads as such causing more harm than good? The ASA, often described as a woke regulator, is likely to continue to take a tough stance. However, we predict that it will also seek to tackle other harmful stereotypes going forward, such as in relation to other protected characteristics such as race.


GIRLvsCANCER’s ad, for the ‘Smash the Stigma’ campaign, featured an image of a woman’s torso, as she held one of her breasts and placed the top of her other hand between her legs, with large white text emblazoned across the poster reading “CANCER WON’T BE THE LAST THING THAT F*CKS ME”.

Whilst the charity argued that the poster represented the very real experience of women with cancer and the emotions that come with this, the ASA concluded that “the ad was likely to cause serious and widespread offence and was therefore also inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium where it could be seen by children”. They considered that the use of an expletive in the ad, albeit with an asterisk to replace the letter “U”, would be understood to be an allusion to a colloquial term for sex and that accordingly, by combining the imagery with the suggestive nature of the text, “viewers were likely to interpret…the ad as depicting sexual behaviour in an explicit manner”. The ad was therefore banned.

The decision is reminiscent of the regulator’s stance two decades ago in relation to French Connection’s use of its well-know “FCUK” acronym, which was also a nod to the sexually suggestive expletive, and which was also banned.

If you are an advertiser and want to know whether the ASA’s rules may affect a campaign, please contact Squire Patton Boggs’ specialist Advertising, Media and Brands team for practical guidance and advice.