CAP has published new guidance advising marketers on how to avoid racial and ethnic stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence in advertising. It aims to provide clarity and detail on factors the ASA is likely to consider when assessing complaints.

Over the years, the ASA has adjudicated on many complaints that about ads causing serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race or ethnic background, as well as requiring them to be socially responsible. 

In 2020, the ASA carried out research to see if, and if so to what extent, racial and ethnic stereotypes featured in ads may contribute to real-world harms. The new guidance draws on that research to set out a more detailed framework of principles describing specific types and treatments of stereotypes identified as having the potential to cause harm, and that would therefore be likely to breach rules on social responsibility.

The CAP and BCAP Codes include rules that prohibit ads from causing harm and serious or widespread offence, and require them to be socially responsible. The CAP Code specifies that particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, though the rules do not explicitly address racial or ethnic stereotypes. In addition, the Codes state that ads must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to the audience and to society. Ads that include harmful stereotypes, such as those identified by the research, would breach this rule unless, in very exceptional circumstances, the particular content and context of the ad justified their inclusion.

The use of humour or banter is unlikely to mitigate against the types of harm or serious or widespread offence identified in the guidance.

The guidance covers various scenarios, including explicitly harmful stereotypes, scenarios which seek to challenge harmful racial or ethnic stereotypes, mocking or insensitive depictions, scenarios depicting stereotypical roles and characteristics, objectification and sexualisation and interactions between different types of harmful racial or ethnic stereotypes.

While the matter of whether an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence is assessed separately to whether it is likely to cause harm, compliance with the principles above to avoid harmful racial and ethnic stereotyping is likely to result in advertisers avoiding breaching rules on offence caused by racial and ethnic stereotyping as well.

CAP and BCAP recognise that ads rarely set out to include harmful racial or ethnic stereotypes, or those that are likely to cause serious or widespread offence. The ASA will consider an ad’s likely impact when taken as a whole and in context when deciding if it portrays a racial or ethnic stereotype likely to breach the rules.


It is interesting that CAP went through a process of significant soul searching on the issue of harmful gender stereotypes a couple of years ago, and introduced a specific rule to prohibit harmful gender stereotypes in the summer of 2019. The rule in 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (BCAP Code) states that ads ‘must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’. This rule is still in force.

However, CAP hasn't taken the opportunity to introduce an equivalent rule when it comes to 'harm' involving other protected characteristics, including race and ethnicity, nor has it taken the opportunity to broaden out the current rule that sets a higher bar for 'harmful gender stereotypes' to cover all harmful stereotypes. 

With this new guidance regarding 'racial and ethnic stereotypes', CAP and the ASA appear to be proceeding as if the rules have been updated in the way that they were for harmful gender stereotypes in 2019, but they have not.

It is a slightly odd and inconsistent approach, and I think it warrants some clarification or retrospective 'tidying-up' of the rules when it comes to all types of harmful stereotypes - particularly those involving protected characteristics.

Marketers should ensure that future advertising complies with the rules and latest guidance.