Canada: SEX In Advertising... What Are The Limits?

Last Updated: December 11 2012
Article by Marketing, Advertising & Regulatory Group

Bottom Line: As one hears, there are only three certainties in life: Death, Taxes and the fact that SEX sells. Witness only the runaway success of the book "50 Shades of Grey", which reportedly constituted about 20% of all print adult fiction books sold in America in the spring and is Britain's bestseller – ever. So, what are the limits to using sex in ads so that the ads have a fair chance of staying up long enough for the adhesive to dry? While the line is inherently grey, cases generally suggest that the sexuality should be relevant to the product and not simply gratuitously employed, it should not be demeaning to a particular group or more graphic than necessary or reasonable (which may also depend on where it's being displayed), and it should NOT involve young people or religious figures. With those general guidelines, though, there are a million ways to Sunday to test the limits. We look at some of them below.


The main basis of challenging overly sexy ads are Clauses 14 (c) and (d) of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards ("Code"), administered by our self-regulatory body, Advertising Standards Canada ("ASC"). Clause 14 applies to a range of "offensive" kinds of ads, from being racist to unduly ridiculing. As applied in "sex" cases, though, it essentially prohibits ads that demean any group (usually women, although sometimes men or, in one case, nurses!) or display obvious indifference to conduct or attitudes, "that offend the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population as assessed by ASC's Advertising Standards Council ("Council")."


14. Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals

It is recognized that advertisements may be distasteful without necessarily conflicting with the provisions of this Clause 14; and the fact that a particular product or service may be offensive to some people is not sufficient grounds for objecting to an advertisement for that product or service.

Advertisements shall not:

(a) condone any form of personal discrimination, including that based upon race, national origin, religion, sex or age;

(b) appear in a realistic manner to exploit, condone or incite violence; nor appear to condone, or directly encourage, bullying; nor directly encourage, or exhibit obvious indifference to, unlawful behaviour;

(c) demean, denigrate or disparage one or more identifiable persons, group of persons, firms, organizations, industrial or commercial activities, professions, entities, products or services, or attempt to bring it or them into public contempt or ridicule;

(d) undermine human dignity; or display obvious indifference to, or encourage, gratuitously and without merit, conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population.


Where lines are unclear, you often only know where the line is (was) once you go over it.

You'll recall over the past few updates, we've written about various ads that had sexual connotations, stirred up a rage of emotions and drove many complaints right to the doorstep of ASC.

What do Clothing, Cell Phones and Beer all Have in Common? They're all Integrally Related to Sex ..?

Prior ads have ranged from an ad for a blouse shown on the back of a free weekly publication in Quebec where a woman was shown exposing her bottom (which by the way triggered a total of nine complaints to the ASC); to more risqué ads, like the ad from American Apparel that depicted a young woman wearing a black lace unitard and bending over in front of a bed in a very provocative pose. That was found to be over the line).

Oh yes, and we must not forget the ad with the two men kissing passionately on the desk accompanied by the tagline "hook up fearlessly" by Virgin Mobile. That was found to be over the line too. And what about the one for Minhas Creek Beer that showed two nurses wearing tight sexy mini dresses, helping to revive a can of flat beer lying in a hospital bed. That ad caused a huge uproar in the nursing community as nurses felt it demeaned the nursing profession. Nonetheless, it was found to NOT offend the code

For an example of a gorgeous ad that was found NOT to go over the line, we wrote about the classic A Marca Bavaria beer ad a number of years ago, and it still stands as a beacon of an ad that hung just this side of the line.

Molson's A Marca Bavaria beer washed up onto Canadian shores in 2003 with the help of Pietra, a noted Brazilian model. In the ad that sparked the debate, two mid-twentyish men are sitting on a private Brazilian beach, looking out over the water. One reaches into an ice cooler and pulls out a bottle of A Marca Bavaria beer. As he pulls the bottle out of the bucket, Pietra rises out of the surf. As he twists and turns the bottle, she follows the movements of the bottle, spinning first to the right and then to the left, revealing all sides of her... person, then lying down on a beach blanket. At the climax of the ad, he begins to peel the label off the bottle. The look on his face is, well, about what you'd expect it to be for a guy in this situation. Joy. Wonder. Rapture. Not believing this dream. As he peels the soaked label from the bottleneck, Pietra begins, correspondingly, to undo the string on one side of her bikini. His mouth drops open, eyes widen and, although you can't hear the pounding of his heart, you can feel it.

But, all good things have to come to an end now, don't they? Just as the point of no return nears, Pietra stops untying her bikini, shakes her head "no" with a smile, and puts an end to the exchange. The men wince with anguish, but laugh at themselves. Undone, but what a way to go.

In terms of "sexual" depictions, there was the close-up of Pietra's back side in her thong bikini, which drew complaints that placed too much emphasis on her sexuality. Although she was, after all, on a beach in Brazil. Then there were those who perceived the man to actually be controlling Pietra, which they found objectionable. We may not understand males very well, but we would have thought that if the man were controlling Pietra, there would probably have been a different end to the story?

What did the Council find? It ruled in Molson's favour. The Council commented that some of the body shots in the original ad had made some members feel uncomfortable, but not to the point of violating the Code. The Council also considered the relationship between the man and the woman in the ad. After viewing the ad, the Council saw the ad as Molson had intended – a scene of mutual play in which, ultimately, the woman was in control. The Council commented that had the woman not said "no" at the end of the ad, they would have reached a different conclusion. As filmed, though, the ad was not demeaning to women and therefore not a violation of the Code.


But some sexy ads we told you about were not about selling their blouse, lingerie, mobile phones or their beer, but were about promoting a good cause! Like the ad for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ("PETA") showing the actress, Pamela Anderson, wearing nothing but a skimpy bikini and her body parts labelled (i.e., round, rump, ribs, as you might see at a butcher shop) together with the tagline, "All animals have the same parts. Have a heart. Go vegetarian." The Montreal Flim and TV Commission had trouble with this ad, denying PETA a permit to stage an event where the poster would be revealed. This controversy made big news across the country and ended up getting exponential exposure.


Anyway, we think you get the picture – and, not surprisingly, there have been a lot more advertisers pushing the sexual envelope for attention over the past year. A warning though, some of these ads are not for the squeamish. Reader discretion is advised.


Bal en Blanc is a huge rave party that is hosted during the Easter holiday weekend every year in Montreal. It attracts over 15,000 attendees, both gay and straight, and usually lasts for more than 14 hours. In Q3 of 2011, Bal en Blanc advertised this event on the Internet in Quebec depicting highly sexualized images including masturbation and ejaculation. Surprisingly, ASC only received one complaint that the ads were vulgar, offensive and indecent (maybe not many people actually saw the ads?). Not surprisingly, ASC thought the campaign was degrading to men and women and offended standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population and thus contravened Clause 14(d) of the Code.


In Q4 of 2011, K-97 Classic Rock ran a national billboard ad for their morning radio show that received 10 complaints. The ad featured a close up of a well-endowed woman wearing a tight white t-shirt, her head cut off from the ad, showing only her chest. A tagline read: PRAY FOR MORE RAIN. Contrary to Clauses 14(c) and (d), ASC found the ad demeaned and denigrated women and encouraged, gratuitously and without merit, attitudes that offended standards of decency.


In Q2 of 2012, American Apparel ran an Internet ad in Quebec advertising stockings. What's wrong with advertising stockings? Well, as is typical for this advertiser, the ad showed the back of a woman, wearing ONLY stockings and a garter, leaving her bare bottom exposed. Again, ASC concluded that the advertisement displayed obvious indifference to conduct or attitudes that offended the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population.


So there's no denying, SEX certainly gets a lot of attention. If you've read this article, you might be evidence of that. But you'll want to ask yourself...does the risk outweigh the reward in your particular circumstances?

Bottom line: When it comes to sex, marketers who want to keep their jobs should at least know how to exercise safe advertising!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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