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Public morality in fashion advertising: what are the risks?

As fashion retailers compete to make their brands stand out, there are pressures to deliver edgy and eye-catching marketing campaigns that appeal to consumers.


However the sector needs to know where the line is, making sure that they don’t stray into the territory of what the ASA defines as socially irresponsible.

General guidance from the ASA states that advertisements should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society. They shouldn’t mislead and must not contain anything that will cause offence.

Kerry Gwyther, partner and head of regulatory at TLT, outlines some of the key areas that fashion retailers need to be aware of.

Featuring fashion models

By far the most common area that fashion advertisements fall foul of the rules on social responsibility is the way that fashion models are portrayed in ads.

  • One issue relates to ‘excessively thin’ models. The ASA will uphold complaints against advertisers that it considers are promoting an unhealthy body image. If very thin models are used it is important, according to precedents established by ASA case law, that any excessively thin features, such as visible hip or collar bones, be concealed rather than accentuated.
  • Sexually provocative imagery can also be problematic, especially if the advertisement could be viewed by children. While advertisers are not prohibited from using advertisements with sexual undertones, the ASA has in the past banned fashion advertisements that it considered to be overtly sexual or demeaning to women.

Featuring young people

The UK Advertising Codes contain strict rules to protect children from potentially misleading, harmful or offensive material. Advertisers need to be aware that social responsibility provisions are broad and sometimes infringements can be unexpected.

For example, the ASA recently banned an advertisement that was seen as encouraging unsafe practices. A leading high fashion retailer featured a 14-year-old model sitting on railway tracks in a UK society magazine. Even though the advertisement was placed in a publication targeted at adults, the ASA concluded that the advertisement was irresponsible. It was therefore in breach of its code for showing a child in a hazardous or dangerous situation.

What are the consequences?

Having an advertisement declared socially irresponsible by the ASA is clearly damaging to a product’s brand image. Public interest in these types of decisions is typically quite high and adjudications are often widely publicised in the media. This risks undoing any benefit of running the advertisement in the first place.

Fashion retailers should consider public morality risk factors at an advertisement’s inception stage. This way the risks can be effectively managed.   

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