An advertising campaign by the Bentall Centre has become the subject of a sexism row, amid claims it portrays women as “catty, self-obsessed bitches”.

The shopping centre has been criticised for its January sales campaign, which features images of cats’ heads on women’s bodies and reads: “Elbows ready, girls: The sale season has begun.”

The ad has been displayed as a large poster near Kingston station and also appeared on the Bentall Centre’s website and in the centre itself.

But the ads have been accused of reinforcing an ancient stereotype of women as vacuous and materialistic.

Hannah Rose Tristram saw the poster when returning home to Kingston after Christmas.

She said: “This seems to be encouraging catty, competitive behaviour and implies women should be shallow bitch-cats, beating each other to the cheapest fancy frock.

“The best way of defeating a group of people is to turn them against each other.

“Instead of encouraging women to get on with each other and help each other, this tells women the way to be feminine is to be catty, materialistic and competitive.”

She admitted a friend had disagreed with her, saying it was trying to appeal to people’s sense of humour, but maintained the campaign was still “damaging”.

Environmental campaigner Bernadette Vallely, who lives in Richmond Road, said: “It is a not so subtle, sexist innuendo. It is a gender trap that many advertisers fall into. It is shameful.”

Twitter user @kingstonbear posted a picture of the poster, saying: “Women are catty, self-obsessed bitches... says Bentall Centre Kingston #sexism”.

A spokeswoman for the Bentall Centre said: “Our adverts were designed to catch the eye of fashion conscious shoppers.

“The sales season is prime time for stylish bargain hunters and it was in this context the images were chosen.”