The Advertising Standards Authority has banned an online ad for Chinese retail giant Alibaba that sexualised a young girl wearing make-up and a string bikini.
The ad's main image featured the girl, whom the ASA estimated to be aged between seven and 11 years old, wearing high-leg bikini bottoms and a string bikini top, while accompanying photos showed adult female models, one wearing a swimsuit and another in a bikini.
Appearing on the MailOnline on 1 March and NewsNow on 5 February, it drew complaints from two people, who believed the child had been portrayed in a sexualised way and therefore deemed the ad irresponsible.
The offending ad showed a full-body image of the young girl, with the bikini's design exposing her upper thighs, hips and midriff, the ASA said, adding: "The model, who was looking straight at the camera, also wore make-up and posed with her head at a slight angle, pushing her hair behind her ear in a coquettish manner."
While the watchdog did not consider the imagery to be overtly sexual, it did believe the pose "quite adult for a model who was clearly under the age of 18".
"We considered that the model's pose, in conjunction with the revealing clothing and make-up she was wearing, had the effect of portraying her in a sexual way." It therefore was socially irresponsible, potentially harmful and offensive and breached the CAP Code.
When the ad watchdog contacted Alibaba to inquire about the ad and give the company the right to defend its position, the client did not reply, which the ASA deemed as "apparent disregard for the Code".
On approaching MailOnline owner Associated Newspapers and NewsNow Publishing, both said the ad had been served to their respective websites programmatically via the open marketplace. NewsNow told the ASA that before it had been contacted by the watchdog, it had already received a complaint about the ad, leading the publisher to launch an internal investigation to find it. It was unable to, but said the offending ad had not appeared since the complaint.
The ad not only broke advertising rules, but with Alibaba failing to respond to the ASA, it was also in breach of a further two Codes, including "unreasonable delay". The ASA reminded Alibaba to respond promptly to enquiries in the future.
The ASA told Alibaba that it must "ensure their future ads did not include images that portrayed or represented anyone who was, or seemed to be, under 18 years of age in a sexual manner".
The matter has been referred to the CAP Compliance team, which has responsibilities including enforcing rulings and chasing non-respondents for assurances they will abide by the ruling. The ASA can also work with media owners to block ad space for non-compliant advertisers.