On April 6, 2016, the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority considered a complaint made against Guccio Gucci SpA regarding a video, which originally appeared on the website at www.thetimes.co.uk. The advert featured several models dancing in a house, clothed in the apparel of the global fashion brand, and the complaint centered around the physical appearance of these models.

The complainant believed that the models appeared “unhealthily thin”, and that the advertisement therefore violated the applicable advertising code, which provides that “marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society”.

The ASA ruled that the advert was irresponsible, must not appear again in its current form, and that Gucci must ensure that the images in their advertisements were prepared responsibly.

This ruling follows on the heels of various similar findings by the ASA against irresponsible advertisements in the past few years. In January 2015, The Shop Channel UK received an adverse ruling against its television advert for a corset that “added to the impression that women should aspire to very small waists”. A few months later, Yves Saint Laurent received an adverse ruling from the ASA regarding their advert that appeared in Elle magazine, and Urban Outfitters was dealt the same fate in 2014 in regard to an advertisement that appeared on its own website.

An interesting point to note is that Gucci advanced an argument that its target audience were the “older, sophisticated” readers of the Times. The ASA did not seem to give much consideration to this argument in upholding the complaint.  Although the ASA did not specifically address the issue of the target audience, it would be remiss, in a time where social media has become the advertiser’s greatest asset, to earnestly try to convince an advertising watchdog that an advertisement is limited to a specific audience.

Given the ease with which an advertisement can be reproduced on various social media platforms (most often with a direct link on the website, on which the advertisement appears, to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest), brand owners should diligently review the content of advertisements prior to publishing them.

Although Twitter does not ask for a potential user’s age when signing up, its privacy policy suggests that users must be over the age of 13, the mandatory age required by Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, and Snapchat.

The ASA has regularly held that the number of complaints made against an advert is only one factor taken into consideration. In reaching a decision on whether to uphold complaints, the ASA will also take into account factors including the audience, medium, and context of the advert.

The ASA can impose various sanctions in respect of an irresponsible advert, which range from ordering the withdrawal of the advertisement, issuing an ad alert to its members to withhold services such as access to advertising space, and calling for pre-vetting of all adverts of persistent offenders. For advertisers who have broken the advertising code on the grounds of taste and decency or social responsibility, the pre-vetting period can last for two years.

The expansive landscape of social media should be at the forefront of every advertiser’s mind when assessing the suitability of the content of their advertisements in order to avoid the irony of breaking through thin ice, only to land in hot water.