Sex and decency issues in advertising: general and international dimensions

Sex and decency issues in advertising: general and international dimensions

J.J. Boddewyn

De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum–one should not argue about tastes and colors. This medieval proverb is often cited concerning the futility of discussing subjective issues. However, in the case of “sex and decency in advertising,” it seems that the discussion will go on forever. This issue and its implications have been much studied and debated recently by academics, feminist groups, advertising bodies, and parliamentary committees.’ The following sections highlight key problems, factors, and remedies derived from these studies and from an International Advertising Association (IAA) survey Boddewyn 1989).


There is usually no simple explanation of why a particular product or advertisement is considered offensive, although some factors are more readily identifiable than others.

Religion and other value systems are certainly crucial in defining and sanctioning sex and decency. Moslem countries tend to frown upon all kinds of salacious displays and even indirect sexual references. Similar Christian standards operate in such countries as Ireland, South Africa, Mexico, and the Philippines. Other cultures may be considered rather tolerant in sexual matters (for example, French commercials on public television readily show live semi-nude models) but may prohibit any show of pubic hair (Japan), the promotion of contraceptives (France), or the lewd use of women (Scandinavia and the Netherlands) in advertisements. Values change, however. Thus, the spread of AIDS has reopened the issue of advertising condoms and other contraceptives in a totally different context, which transcends the older concerns about birth control and venereal-disease prevention.

The law usually parallels religious and moral standards.

There are often statutes dealing with public indecency (in Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom), the moral protection of minors, the restriction of violent displays (including sado-masochistic ones), and discriminatory job advertisements (particularly in Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Restrictions on the publication and circulation of “sexy” magazines of the Playbqy variety, with their usually more risque ads, also belong to this category (Argentina, Lebanon, South Africa, and Thailand). Reflecting concerns about “sexist” portrayals, a 1979 amendment to the 1972 Norwegian Marketing Control Law states: An advertiser and anyone who creates advertising matter shall ensure that the advertisement does not conflict with the inherent parity between the sexes, and that it does not imply any derogatory judgment of either sex or portray a woman or a man in an offensive manner.”

Similar provisions have been enacted in India, Peru, and Portugal to protect women against indecent or derogatory representations.

Still, the matter of constitutional freedom of speech as applied to advertising has raised serious questions concerning control of sex and decency in advertising. Swedish courts, for example, have not sustained some initiatives of the Consumer Ombudsman in this matter; and the Swedish Parliament stated in 1977 that no law prohibiting ads discriminating against women could be introduced without amending the Freedom of the Press Act. U.S. courts keep struggling with the definition of obscenity in the context of the First Amendment.

The activism of religious and feminist groups clearly affects the stiffening of standards. Several Moslem countries (such as Iran and Saudi Arabia) are strongly resisting the invasion of Western advertising themes and approaches. Besides, a vocal minority of women are increasingly objecting to the deprecation of their sex (in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden). They oppose ads that belittle women, insult their intelligence, depict them in an offending manner, imply sex inequalities, or display violence against them. Some people, including men, oppose commercials about personal-hygiene products (in Canada and the United States).

Media control is crucial whenever a strong clearance system exists (in Mexico and Taiwan), particularly where television and radio networks are government controlled or when general censorship prevails (in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia). In general, TV and radio commercials are more restricted than print and direct-mail ads, which are more selective in their audience-reaching; private networks are often more tolerant than public ones in such countries as Italy. In any case, much depends on the execution of the advertisements as well as on their placement and timing. An ad in Playboy or a commercial shown at midnight will be received differently from those appearing in general-circulation magazines or in prime time. Restraint, grace, and wit may also make a difference.

Besides, the greater number and variety of publications, commercial broadcasting stations, and direct-mail advertisements are eliminating much of the rationing that allowed the media–particularly television and radio–to refuse ads for various controversial products and services simply because there was not enough time and space to accommodate all advertisers. As Colin Shaw, Director of the U.K. Broadcasting Standards Council, remarked (1989): “People buy newspapers largely to confirm their prejudices. I the whole, most people look at television and are constantly having their prejudices affronted.” international editions of newspapers and magazines as well as the recent growth of satellite broadcasting are diffusing new types of advertisements about different products to countries unaccustomed to them.

Advertising self-regulation has played some role in curbing excesses in the matter of sex and decency-particularly in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom. These efforts are aimed at preventing further government restrictions and improving advertising’s image. Problems are often minimized by corporate policies and by tacit understandings among advertisers not to advertise certain products or use certain media, as well as by their fear of negative reactions on the part of audiences. This kind of self-discipline helps explain the paucity of male-hygiene advertisements in Japan and of contraceptive advertisements in Argentina. Situations change, however, as some advertisers, advertising agencies, and media brave tradition and begin to promote products and services previously left to more discreet treatment.

“Sex and decency” is not a monolithic issue, in any case. The following sections review the problems associated with defining, explaining, and curbing the use of indecent and sex-related advertisements.


Many dictionary definitions of decency could be cited, but all suffer from the use of equally vague synonyms to catch a very elusive subject. In the 1988 IAA survey, decency was defined in terms of conformity to recognized standards of propriety, good taste and modesty”–all imprecise terms, to be sure. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, its self-regulatory body, has repeatedly tried to develop more precise criteria to be used by its complaint–handling body, such as:

1. Would it offend a majority of the people?

2. is it so deeply offensive to a few that their feelings should override the views of the majority?

3. Does it include the irrelevant use of certain words and images?

4. Is gratuitous vulgarity used?

However, this laudable effort still suffers from the use of relatively vague criteria left to the appreciation of its complaint-handling bodies.

Decency criteria are also very heterogeneous. People who are very liberal about editorial and artistic expression-including the show of nudity and sex in films as well as the publication of erotic materials–may blanch when they see an ad for pantyhose, contraceptives, douches, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper. Moreover, criteria and their application are and will remain subjective, outside of specific interdictions such as various strictures in Moslem countries against showing female bodies in advertisements, the prohibition of branded contraceptive commercials in most countries, and media acceptance rules that exclude various products and services (feminine-hygiene products and funeral homes).

Besides, decency standards are in flux, sometimes in opposite directions. In the United Kingdom, the television standards applying to foundation garments have been relaxed without generating much opposition, while the introduction of feminine-hygiene commercials in 1986 prompted many complaints. The recent concern about AIDS has allowed generic commercials and posters about the use of male contraceptives and other forms of protection (including abstinence), but there is little movement toward the advertising of branded contraceptives on television because vocal religious and conservative groups oppose ads about products that explicitly acknowledge sexual activity.


This issue concerns the use of sexual imagery and suggestiveness as the primary attention-getters in advertisements. Its range is broad–from the modeling of sexy lingerie, to men and women eyeing or touching each other, to hints or displays of homosexuality, to the combination of sex and violence in advertisements.

The use of sexuality in advertising rests on the assumption that “sex sells”-at least in some cases. Since few men or women will deny that they are interested in the other gender, the use of sexuality can be successful because perfume, lingerie, and designer jeans are often bought for the very purpose of attracting the opposite sex. Besides, eroticism is as legitimate in advertising as it is in art, to the extent that it is contextually apt. Still, besides the obvious moral concerns about promoting promiscuity, there are the more practical problems for advertisers of distracting potential consumers from the real advantages of their product or service, and of offending some of their targets. Sexy ads can also degenerate into objectification and violence.

Cultural differences are very evident here. In Malaysia, when a man and a woman are shown alone in a room for more than three seconds, it implies they had intercourse. In this highly conservative Moslem country, any display of female bodies or any hint of sexuality is strictly forbidden. However, Scandinavians do not insist on modesty in ads, and French advertisers frequently show partially clad or nude women and use sexually suggestive language. In the U.S., one commonly sees men and women in intimate and suggestive poses, but advertisers refrain from any display of frontal nudity, except in some fashion print ads and men’s magazines.

A major factor is that of appropriateness, as is revealed by the results of a recent British Survey (ASA 1990): “The strongest expressions of offence among the public in general relate to advertisements which exploited nudity, semi-nudity, or sex in a manner which could be said to be irrelevant to the product advertised. Although the survey shows a high degree of tolerance for nudity in advertisements when it is contextually apt, the public does react strongly to the inept use of sexuality, and to sexual innuendo either in illustration or text, and especially if the sole purpose is to draw attention to an advertisement.”


For some feminists, any portrayal of violence against women is the ultimate expression of male dominance and female submissiveness, which they totally reject. Still, some creative types in advertising agencies are constantly searching for new approaches to captivate jaded consumers, thereby pushing against current boundaries of acceptable sexual and semi-erotic advertising–until a backlash results. Thus, a South African manufacturer of industrial padding used an ad showing a semi-clad woman sprawled unconscious on a bed, with a knife resting at her side. The reaction in this very conservative Christian country was strong against this gratuitous implication of violence against women and against the irrelevance of using women in connection with this product. Similarly, Scandinavians are tolerant of nudity but object strongly to ads that negate the equality and dignity of the sexes.

The fact that some U.S. women’s magazines are displaying more advertisements showing women in subservient and helpless positions is puzzling. This form of quasi-erotica is mostly found in men’s and fashion magazines, but the introduction of sexual violence into the mainstream press and MTV videos suggests that some people, including women, find this type of display appealing and nonthreatening. Sexual violence may represent fantasy and not be considered as undermining seriously the position of women in society. Still, the growing awareness of battered wives and raped women may well turn sexual violence in advertising into a major issue.


Distinctions that diminish or demean one sex in comparison with the other– particularly through the use of sex-role stereotyping-are no longer a mere subset of the “poor taste” category of making fun of mothers-in-law fussy wives, and fanatic homemakers. The debate now centers on matters of “injustice and inequality,” on “the myth of female inferiority,” and on the desired status of women.” is advertising a mirror of society” that simply reflects the various roles of modern women-including those of wife, mother, and homemaker? Or is its true but hidden purpose that of keeping men in power”? These ideological issues match the broader contemporary concerns about racism and other forms of discrimination and disparagement, and they raise important questions about the impact of advertising on values and behaviors.

It is obvious that the roles of women have multiplied and diversified in many countries. It is also acknowledged by more advertising practitioners that they have lagged in reflecting these new roles and aspirations. The true challenges lie in: (1) eliminating blatant expressions of sexual discrimination that have no objective foundations, and (2) translating into good copy and images the fact that, at least in industrialized countries, both women and men play many roles in society, and thus they accept and even demand to be represented in multiple manners.

To the first task belongs the prohibition of employment ads that inappropriately specify gender for some occupations, the progressive elimination of sexist language in ads (salesman, housewife), and the increase of female voice-overs in commercials to dispel the notion that only men are experts and authority figures. The second task is really commonsensical in a marketing age that stresses market segmentation and the proper positioning of products and services. When more women work in better occupations and more husbands share in household and child-raising tasks–among other social-role developments–then advertising has no choice but to reflect these significant changes to be economically effective and socially accepted.

In this perspective, the counter-arguments advanced by advertising practitioners lose much of their punch: that restrictions on sex-role stereotyping interfere with creativity; that the industry did not create the stereotypes but only uses them; that stereotyping is an appropriate shortcut technique to reach wide audiences, particularly in the context of very short commercials; and that negative stereotypes constitute only a small part in their overall use.

For critics of the advertising industry, instances of sexist advertising still abound, as revealed by this example given by Margaret Shields, New Zealand’s Minister of Women’s Affairs (1989):

Car advertisements aimed at women give little factual information about what sort of performance we could expect from the vehicle. instead, we find how sexually attractive we’re going to look in it, how many shopping bags we can fit in the back, and how even those difficult parks, that we daren’t have attempted in the past, are now accessible to us. Similar advertisements aimed at men frequently give detailed information about performance, economy and endurance. Women need this sort of product information as much as men do.

Yet this mandate is a complex one for advertising practitioners, because there are real differences between men and women, as revealed by the following Norwegian comment about what may or may not be acceptable:

Advertisements which exploit feelings of uncertainty in connection with menstruation are not necessarily open to challenge. However, an ad focusing on lack of mental balance during menstrual periods is open to assessment because the more or less well-founded claims concerning women’s mental and physical problems connected with menstruation have been and still are one of the most effective means of inhibiting the activity of women in society by casting a derogatory judgment on them. (Melgard, no date)

Nevertheless, there are now dangers that new unrealistic prototypes are emerging (the “superwoman”), that women choosing to stay at home and raise children will he denigrated in turn, and that men will be portrayed unrealistically and even unfavorably. Regarding the latter, articles have begun to criticize the portrayal of men in U.S. and Canadian commercials (Freedman 1989, Goldberg 1989, Jung 1989). They point out that, while it is no longer acceptable to make fun of women, men are now the target of rough treatment and insults. Copywriters may be afraid to fool around with women’s new roles, while the women get the best lines, as revealed by the following examples:

An airline commercial shows two reporters from competing newspapers. She’s strong and smart. He’s a nerd. He says to her: “I read your story this morning; you scooped me again.” She replies to him: “I didn’t know you could read.”

A print ad for Stay-put Shoulder Pads reads:

They’re like a good man: a little bold, a little square, around when you need them, and they stay put…. They never lose their shape, which is more than you can say for most men.”

Commercials showing women hitting men in the face, pouring cold water over them, pushing them into a lake, or patting their behinds are not uncommon in North America today. But they have elicited few reactions from viewers and the networks, who would be more likely to object if women were the victims of such treatments. It may be a case of overcompensating for the poor portrayal of women in the past, but such discriminatory treatment of men deserves equal criticism and correction.

Finally, one must acknowledge important national differences. Some cultures insist on keeping women in traditional roles. In Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, for example, women must be shown in a family setting-not carefree, not by themselves, and not appealing to the opposite sex in advertisements. Conversely, Canada, France, and Sweden are now stressing that sexism should be avoided in advertising directed to children to avoid associating certain toys and forms of play with one sex or another, thereby nipping sexism in the bud.


Using women (mostly) as decorative or attention-getting objects, with little or no relevance to the product or service advertised, is also criticized. This objection emanates from both traditionalist and feminist women–the former objecting to the sex and nudity associated with such ads, and the latter more concerned about the limited roles assigned to women and about the way such ads deal with the relations among the sexes, particularly when women are presented in subservient positions. Clearly, the reification of women (that is, turning them into “things”) overlaps with the issues of sexism (women are not presented as experts), decency, and sexuality (too much sex or the wrong kind).

Besides the fact that such ads reflect the traditional canons of male desires, the practical problem is whether they actually help sell anything in their crudest forms. Historically men have been perceived as the sole or main breadwinners and decision makers in families. Consequently, advertisements have reflected these values, even though much advertising was actually directed toward women. Because men are attracted to pretty and sexy women, and men were the primary purchasers of big-ticket items (cars, office equipment), the use of women as attention getters seemed appropriate and wholly acceptable.

The advent of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s changed this perception. Suddenly women were entering the work force in large numbers, some of them in mid-level and top managerial positions. Divorce was on the rise, and single parents became more common. At this point, attitudes toward the use of females as decorative objects took a major turn. Women, who for centuries had accepted their roles as wives, mothers, and inferiors to men, began demanding equal footing. They no longer believed they needed to direct all of their attention and efforts to looking young and attractive for men. A consequence of this change in attitudes has been the rejection of merely decorative roles for women.

However, advertisers have been slow in picking up on this change, and one still finds many instances of women being inappropriately used to sell products intended primarily for men, as is revealed by the following case from the Canadian Advertising Foundation (CAF):

A television message for a chewing gum directed at men drew many complaints from women. The 30-second message included shots of a variety of women while a 1960s rock song played. Only in the last two seconds was the product shown. The concept was to tie in “girl-watching” as a tradition with the use of gum as a tradition. The CAF consulted with the advertiser through several versions of the message, with the acknowledgment that no changes would bring the message in line with the guidelines. The final print did avoid overt examples of close body shots and scantily dressed women. However, it was still considered to be in contravention of the guidelines because the women’s presence had no relevance to the advertised product.

Yet having attractive women in ads may help create a particular mood that the marketer is striving for. Thus, placing an expensively dressed and attractive woman in a men’s clothing advertisement (or a man in a women’s perfume ad) may imply quality. In this scenario, the woman or man bears no relevance to the product, but neither is she or he portrayed in an offensive manner. Therefore, the use of reification may not decrease when it shows women and men in a realistic lifestyle context, but the execution will be different from that of placing a bikini-clad woman on a forklift truck.

The use of reification in men’s specialty magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse is better understood. These magazines are more or less dedicated to the exploitation and objectification of women, so the use of women as decorative objects in their advertisements is in keeping with their character. Unless one is prepared to prohibit the sale of these magazines, as in South Africa and Thailand, such continued reification of women is to be expected in the pages of these special media.


A 1988 survey of 47 countries (Boddewyn 1989) revealed the following facts about the “sex and decency” issue, and about its control.

1. Although much of the current literature suggests that decency, the use of sex stereotypes, violence against women, and objectification in advertising are “hot” issues in a host of countries, the survey results suggest they are of medium importance even though quite real and unlikely to disappear (see Figure 1).

2. The cultural, religious, and economic characteristics of the countries appeared to be the dominant factors explaining national patterns. Thus, Islamic countries were less tolerant of nudity, sexy advertisements, and the use of women as attention getters. Some Catholic countries (Ireland) and authoritarian regimes (the People’s Republic of China) are also very conservative. More issues were labeled as “major” in less developed countries.

3. Even when done in good taste, ads for female over-the-counter contraceptives were the least acceptable ones around the world. Male contraceptives are also very restricted but some public-set-vice advertising, without brand names being used, is beginning to be tolerated. (This is, by far, the major change since an earlier 1979 IAA survey on the same topic.) Other intimate-use products (douches, laxatives, sanitary napkins) are largely kept out of the broadcast and outdoor media.

4. As in 1979, very few objectionable advertisements have resulted in legal action or punishment. The majority of offenders were television and billboard advertisers, and the most frequent complaints were about indecency or the sexual exploitation of women. In most cases offenders were simply required to remove their ads.

5. Although two-thirds of the respondents indicated that self-regulatory guidelines in their respective countries were vague or lightly applied, only 14 countries expected increased regulatory and self-regulatory measures in the near future. Five countries anticipated some relaxation of the controls, particularly regarding the generic advertising of condoms in view of the AIDS epidemic.

6. Laundry detergent and household products were the categories generating the most complaints for sex-role stereotyping. Automobiles, auto supplies, and alcohol were the prime sources regarding the use of women as attention getters. Film advertisements were the primary offenders as far as sexual violence against women was concerned.

7. Very few respondents were able to provide details concerning the number of complaints received annually in the areas of sex and decency. The absence of data may suggest that the issues are not major ones. However, given the number of self-reglilatory guidelines aimed at addressing these issues, as well as the number of samples of sexist and sexy advertisements enclosed with the returned questionnaires, the likelihood of this scenario is slight.

8. Responses to a variety of hypothetical sexist situations (such as ads showing only women using a vacuum cleaner) revealed that self-regulatory guidelines are typically more common than laws. Broadcast media guidelines are also stricter than those of print in this respect (see Figure 2).

9. Responses to a variety of hypothetically controversial commercials that could be seen on television were particularly negative concerning displays of homosexuality (mostly on the basis of self-regulatory guidelines) and of violence to women (the law is also strongly against it). Showing nudity, underclothing, and physical contact between men and women received their share of opposition from more conservative countries, including the United States.

Sex and decency in advertising is an important issue because it affects the acceptability of all advertising; even a few rotten ads can broadly discredit the industry. Besides, advertisers risk spoiling the intended impact of particular advertisements by offending consumers in the target market. Advertising, like other societal institutions, must operate within culturally defined and time-bound constraints. When norms vary and change, so must advertising, lest its effectiveness be impaired or its freedom be restricted.

More developed nations, particularly in Canada and northern Europe, already have some laws and self-regulatory guidelines as well as women’s and other special-interest groups that actively publicize issues and educate both advertisers and the public. This policing by the public reduces the need for increased government intervention that is difficult to design and apply outside of outright cases of sex discrimination and obscenity. in addition, advertisers appear to be awakening to the reality that more women work outside the home than ever before and have become more important and more pervasive consumers. Still, the tug-of-war will continue between resurgent conservative and emerging modern values, with an outcome that cannot readily be predicted.


1. The useful comments of the following experts are gratefully acknowledged: Rena Bartos (New York), Niquette Delage (Conseil des Normes de la Publicite, Montreal), Maicen Ekman (National Swedish Board for Consumer Policies), Kjersti Graver (Norwegian Consumer Ombud Office), Suzanne Keeler Canadian Advertising Foundation), Patricia Mann U. Walter Thompson, London), Prof. Dr. Christiane Schmerl (Bielefeld University, FRG), Alastair Tempest (European Advertising Tripartite, Brussels), Peter Thomson, London), Chiaki Shimada UARO, Tokyo), Sally Washington (Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Wellington, NZ), and Professor Robert G. Wyckham (Simon Fraser University, Canada).

2. In most cases, only one respondent provided answers for each country, although the respondents were people knowledgeable about the local situation: advertising practitioners, self-regulatory officials, legal experts, and government regulators.


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Jean J. Boddewyn is a professor of marketing and international business at Baruch College, City University of New York. Heidi Kunz is an assistant vice president and financial controller with FISERV, Inc., New York.

Figure 1

Salience of issues

Tasteless and indecent ads 1.72

Sexy ads 1.72

Using women as attention getters 1.67

Sexist ads 1.57

Violence against women 1.42

Predominance of male voice-overs

in commercials 1.24

Note: These average scores for 47 countries were based

on the following scale: 1= minor issue; 2= growing

issue; 3= major issue.

Figure 2

Average Scores on Media Tolerance

Broadcast television 2.9

Radio 2.6

Posters/Billboards/Hoardings 2.4

Cable television 2.4

Newspapers 2.0

General magazines (.e.g., Time) 1.9

Women’s magazines (e.g., Elle) 1.8

Direct mail 1.8

Men’s magazines (e.g., Playboy) 1.4

4 = Very, Conservative; 1 = Very Tolerant

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