By now you’ll have a well-established opinion on Protein World’s "Beach body ready" campaign. A clever PR stunt that spoke to its intended audience or disgraceful and demeaning advertising? In the end, your opinion doesn’t really matter. Protein World revelled in the outcry and London mayor Sadiq Khan has now banned body shaming adverts from the tube. Everybody got what they wanted, no?
Except by driving the discussion underground through censorship, we’re ignoring the real issue. It’s not about irresponsible advertising or about women’s bodies – it’s the role of brands in people’s lives.
Take Dove’s "Real beauty" campaign for example. They spearheaded the body positive conversation and paved the way for brands like Aerie to continue the crusade with #AerieReal, but it’s not enough. Merely focusing on what women look like misplaces our value away from how we think, what we can do and what we’ve achieved. In truth, body confidence is not the only battle that’s yet to be won.
Every day, women fight for a voice in the boardroom, for equal pay and to diminish the little voice inside that says, "this isn’t your place, you’re not good enough."
They fight to walk the streets at night without fear, for the strength to leave abusive relationships. Never mind the added complexity of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and disabilities that’s also thrown into the mix. We can’t save the world from all fronts, but we can certainly save it from added dross.
It’s not just about women – men suffer from stifling expectations and inequalities, too.
In most fashion or cologne adverts for men you’ll either see them sporting chiseled jaws with washboard abs or a waif with a trendy haircut. Alarmingly, the number of men diagnosed with eating disorders has risen by nearly 30% in the last 15 years, so not including them in the equation is at best disingenuous.
Sadly, some fights are deadly. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, pointing to a society that limits their worth around oppressive notions of strength, success and sexual prowess. Men fight for rightful custody of their children, to love another man without fear of discrimination, for access to shared parental leave to which they are entitled, to be adequately included in discourse about post-natal depression. And yet, here we are as advertisers, with our incredible influence on hearts and minds, squandering an opportunity to tell men something other than to buy beer, clothes and watch some goddamn sport.
Thankfully, another Unilever brand, Lynx, is hitting all the right notes with #FindYourMagic. A stark reversal of their previous strategies, they’re powerfully shaping the zeitgeist with a timely manifesto on accepting who you are. No soppy orchestral strings or bullsh*t prankvertising here – just an affirming message with attitude.
Similarly, Sport England’s "This girl can" sung the same tune. More than just a body confidence campaign, it compelled women everywhere to overcome their fear of judgment. Bodyform’s "Blood" and Surfdome’s "Work your bikini" similarly leapfrog a literal focus on the body, adding to the conversation with themes of strength, achievement and attitude. Then, it’s equally exciting to see brands like Thinx (period panties for women) and & Other Stories hero real transgender and lesbian women in their advertising.
The crux is this: consumers can see through the crap. There is a tide of discontent. They are increasingly demanding of brands to be meaningful and sensitive to the human experience. Khan’s tube ban sends a message but is ultimately a band-aid solution.
What we really need is for advertisers and brands to fully realise their role in wider cultural change. They have the money and the means to have a voice and it’s our responsibility to guide them on how to wield the privilege. It’s simple. Find the pain points. Try and solve it. Find a purpose for the brand within it. And all that salesy stuff? It’ll naturally follow.
Catherine Hope is an associate creative director at Naked Communications