A Shenzhen advertising firm has come under fire for using the image of four naked boys on an eight-metre-high billboard dominating a busy highway on the border with Hong Kong.
The photograph, which is intended to market the billboard space and shows children playing in the grass on a sunny day, has generated fierce debate on the internet, where most commentators have decried it as inappropriate and offensive.
Since the advert first appeared late last month, tens of thousands of commuters passing between Lok Ma Chau and Huanggang in Shenzhen have probably seen it.
"It should be a private picture for a mother to keep at home as part of the family's memories," said Daisy Lee, a Tuen Men resident who has a six-year-old daughter and commutes between the two cities regularly.
"It is definitely pointless and inappropriate to post [that] in public, especially for commercial advertising."
Lanbite Advertising, which manages the billboard for the Shenzhen customs checkpoint authorities, defended the image as "very innocent and cute" and said the company was just trying to catch people's attention.
"We are all human beings and this is just our innocent naked body - cute, humorous and healthy," Lanbite owner Wang Ailan said.
"What's wrong with using the picture?"
However, Wendy Liu, a Shenzhen-based operation manager, said: "Although the naked boys look innocent and happy in the picture, I still don't want my kids to notice it.
"It would be hard to offer them a correct and healthy answer if they asked why the boys appeared nude there."
Yet other passers-by said they saw nothing wrong with the picture, saying the criticism might be due to culture shock, as such images are supposedly less taboo in Chinese culture.
Confusion over the short slogan next to the picture - "for rent" - appears to be adding to the debate. Some who have seen the sign say it could appear as if they boys themselves are for rent.
"Oh this is dreadful and just appalling," wrote one Facebook user. "Totally inappropriate and downright creepy, given what the sign says."
(Click here to see what SCMP Facebook followers are saying about the billboard)
A propaganda officer with the Shenzhen General Station of Exit and Entry Frontier Inspection said yesterday that the authorities had not been informed about the use of the picture by the Huanggang checkpoint.
"We will investigate as soon as possible," he said. "If it's inappropriate and discomforting to [the general public], we will immediately order it to be pulled down."
The use of a child's image in such a manner is possible because of a lack of clear and detailed regulations governing the mainland's advertising industry, scholars and industry insiders said.
"According to the current advertising law, the advertisement would violate the standards only if they 'are harmful to children's mental and physical health'," said Tracey Liu, an advertising director in Guangdong.
"[The law is] too fuzzy and weak to protect and kids' rights and privacy.
"On the other hand, kids' images are so popular and eye-catching in Chinese society," she said.
"You can see such abuses anywhere. They use kids' images to sell everything, toys, food, cars, furniture, commercial properties and even drugs."
Li Gongming, a Guangzhou-based scholar of culture and sociology, acknowledged that it was not unusual to see images of nude children in Chinese art.
"But when it comes to commercial advertising, [the mainland] should use an equal standard with Hong Kong and the West to protect children," Li said. "Tradition and culture shock should not be an excuse here."