Sainsbury’s has withdrawn an in-store poster advert following a social media backlash accusing the retailer of being insensitive about women's safety concerns. The ad promoted a £24 wrap midi dress, with the slogan “For walks in the park or strolls after dark”. The positioning of the wording suggests the slogan could also be interpreted in a different way: For walks or strolls in the park after dark”. Either way, the advert has sparked outrage because of heightened concerns about women’s safety, not least in the week of the shocking news that a serving police officer has admitted to dozens of rapes and sexual assaults against 12 women over two decades.

The criticism comes after a viral tweet gained more than 2.2 million views. The tweet highlighted that walking in the dark has proven to be dangerous and even deadly for women in the recent past. Following the devastating murders and widespread media coverage of the murders of Sabina Nessa and Zara Aleena, as well as Sarah Everard, who was abducted by another police officer when she was walking home after dark, it's surprising that the copy wasn't flagged as inappropriate prior to its release. 

Just to put this into perspective even further, a 2021 ONS report found that one in two women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home. And four out of five women felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a park or other open space.

At a time when women have to consider making on phone calls or sharing their precise locations with friends when walking alone in the dark, or even using an alternative mode of transport instead, it’s quite remarkable that the branding team failed to recognise that a “stroll in the park, after dark”, is considered an unsafe activity for women. Sainsbury’s have since acknowledged this as a design fault: “We're sorry that due to the design, some customers found this sign to be inappropriate”.

What would the ASA think?

The Advertising Standards Authority doesn't regulate point of sale advertising unless it’s material that can be removed from the store or it comprises a sales promotion. It’s therefore probably out of remit, but had it been caught, it may have breached rule 4.1 of the CAP Code, which states as follows: 

Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards.

Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule. Marketers are urged to consider public sensitivities before using potentially offensive material.

The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code.”

It’s clear that causing offence is subjective and Sainsbury’s have apologised and are currently “working to remove these from store”, according to their statement given to Sky News.

But Sainsbury's mistake is all the more surprising given the furore around a Samsung TV advert as recently as last summer. In that case, a TV ad and cinema ad for a Samsung Smart Watch showed a woman going running alone at 2 a.m. while wearing earphones. This led to 27 complaints to the ASA that the ads were irresponsible and harmful by encouraging an unsafe practice. Contrary to what one might expect, the ASA ultimately rejected the complaints because the woman in the ads appeared alert and aware of her surroundings, and was running in well-lit, main streets where other people were present. The decision also raised an interesting question: should ads depict the world as it is, or as it should be? Should ads encourage women to behave defensively? Or should we create a society where all men, including men in authority such as policemen, behave properly so that women are safe on the streets, at any time of day or night.

In the case of Sainsbury's, whether it was a design error, a lack of judgement on a sensitive issue or simply an innocent portrayal of a dress suitable for day or evening wear, it’s clear that brands need to consider the likely effect of their ads in the context of the current social, political and cultural climate. Even if ad advertiser escapes censure by the ASA, the reputational damage can be substantial if they fail to do so.