Control of Sex in Advertising

Topics: Advertising, Advertising Standards Authority, Federal Trade Commission Pages: 15 (5031 words) Published: December 2, 2012
The Control of “Sex in Advertising” in France
Jean J. Boddewyn, and Esther Loubradou
The growing use and abuse of sex in French advertising prompted strong reactions from consumer and feminist associations, and resulted in extensive and strict public and private controls. Recently, the French self-regulatory system has developed a system involving various stakeholder organizations to analyze social trends related to the acceptability of sexually-oriented ads, develop new voluntary guidelines, solicit complaints and handle them through an independent Jury. The number and proportion of controversial ads has significantly decreased, and French advertising practitioners have been nudged to accept greater professional responsibility in exchange for the freedom of creativity to which they aspire. A few U.S. developments parallel this increasing cooperation between the public and private controllers of the old issue of “taste and decency in advertising” which is not fading in societal importance.

Jean J. Boddewyn is Emeritus Professor of Marketing and International Business, Baruch College (CUNY) (email: He has written extensively since the 1980s on the regulation and self-regulation of advertising around the world. Esther Loubradou holds a Master’s Degree in Communications and a post-graduate degree in Mass Media Law. She is a doctoral candidate in Advertising, Law and Communications at the University of Toulouse, France. Her dissertation deals with Decency and Sexual Content in Mass Media in France (email:

1 Keywords: sex in advertising, advertising control by state and industry in France and the United States.

Many Americans probably associate the French with sexual laxness and have seen their sexcharged ads for perfumes and cosmetics. Yet, France applies very detailed and strict controls – both public and private – to the use of sex in advertising and courts have ruled in a few notorious cases. Besides, its advertising self-regulatory body reports annually to a government ministry about the progress of its endeavors after conducting an annual survey of sex-related ads in certain media, and relatively few ads have recently been found in violation of French laws and industry guidelines. What explains this paradoxical situation, what are the special causes and features of the French control of sex in advertising, and – briefly – how does the U.S. system compare with it? Since nothing has been published in English on the French control system bearing on sex in advertising, this short Note has to be mainly descriptive and interpretive as a springboard for more theoretical and policy-related research. Still, in answer to admonitions to involve various disciplines (Richards 2009; Rotfeld and Stafford 2007; Rotfeld and Taylor 2009), this study is multi-disciplinary to the extent that cultural (e.g., the evolution of sexual mores), political (e.g., the impact of pressure groups), legal (e.g., the development of “co-regulation” combining public and private initiatives) and ethical (e.g., the “professionalization” of advertising practitioners) factors are used to interpret the French situation. One of the authors is French and an expert in communication law while the second one is American and has conducted many studies of advertising regulation and self-regulation in multiple countries. This Note’s public-policy implications are less evident because of the significant differences between the French and U.S. legal and self-regulatory systems, which preclude easy cross-border borrowings. Yet, there is a significant evolution in the United States toward greater cooperation

2 between the U.S. government and some self-regulatory bodies, which is briefly outlined in the last section of this Note. This development can benefit from knowing how the French system has moved toward combining the compulsory and voluntary approaches to the control of sex in advertising, and how the...
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