The ad, which featured on the back of free magazine Vice, pictured a girl posing with her legs up on an office chair, wearing just a jumper, knickers and knee-length socks.
Complainants objected the ad was “irresponsible” and “offensive” because they believed it sexualised a child as the model appeared to look under 16-years-old.
American Apparel said the model was over 18 years of age and was shown wearing products that were meant for adult consumers. It pointed out that the ad was placed in Vice magazine, which is a publication written for adults.
Vice Magazine said the ad contained no nudity and that in the wider context of fashion and underwear advertising, the image was “tame and tasteful”.
The Advertising Standards Authority said that the model pictured appeared to be potentially under the age of 16.
The watchdog added that whilst the image did not contain explicit nudity, the “amateur” photo, the model’s pose and her unsmiling expression meant the photo would be interpreted as having “sexual undertones” and a “voyeuristic quality”.
It concluded the ad inappropriately sexualised a model who appeared to be a child and was therefore irresponsible. The ASA also judged that because the ad appeared in a magazine that was untargeted and freely available it was likely to cause serious and widespread offence.
The ASA ruled the ad must not appear again its current form and told American Apparel not to depict any model as inappropriately sexualised who could, through their appearance or styling, appear to be a child.
The latest ruling against the retailer marks the second time in two weeks American Apparel has been slammed by the ASA – again for sexualised imagery of a model that could be perceived to be under 16. It was also guilty of similar breaches to the advertising code in April this year and in 2009.
The ASA told Marketing Week while American Apparel has breached the code on a number of occasions, it recognises a willingness on the retailer’s part to work with the watchdog and comply.
A spokeswoman adds: “There is no plan to impose further sanctions at this stage but that is something the ASA will continue to monitor.”