What marketers need to know about TfL's new ad ban
A view from Brinsley Dresden

What marketers need to know about TfL's new ad ban

From 1 July, ads that promote an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape, or are likely to cause body confidence issues, will be banned from appearing on London's public transport network.

Election pledges are often slow to be realised, so for a politician to fulfil one within the first 60 days of taking office is a rarity indeed.

The new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has, though, bucked the trend, and in double quick time with his commitment on TfL advertising. Starting from 1 July 2016, adverts that promote an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape, or are likely to cause body confidence issues, will be banned from appearing on London’s public transport network.

The ban forms part of Transport for London’s updated advertising policy, which gives TfL an even broader discretion to accept or reject advertising.

As well as the ban on so called "body-shaming", the policy now also bans advertising that is "not socially appropriate" or is "unacceptable for some other substantial reason". Within advertising regulation these terms are impossible to tightly define and some flexibility is needed in their application.

The mayor’s changes come in the wake of Protein World’s controversial "beach body ready" campaign. The ad featured a bikini-clad model and sparked a huge public backlash for allegedly "fat-shaming" women by implying that anyone who didn’t have a slim and toned body was inferior.

While the ASA received 378 complaints about the ad, the regulator went against public opinion and ruled that the ad was not offensive or socially irresponsible, although it was banned on other grounds.

TfL’s previous advertising policy stated that a body-shaming ad could only be removed if it reasonably believed that the ad caused widespread or serious offence to members of the public. This is a difficult test to satisfy, particularly once the ASA has considered the issue and reached the conclusion that the ad does not breach applicable advertising rules set out in the CAP Code.

The changes to TfL’s advertising policy means that it is now much easier for TfL to remove ads it considers promote an unhealthy body image.

The question is, however, how do advertisers define unhealthy body image? TfL hasn’t provided any specific guidance for advertisers on this issue, although it will be working closely with its advertising partners to consider what the policy change will mean in practice and to monitor their compliance with the new rules.

TfL will likely follow the ASA’s lead and seek to ban adverts that feature unhealthily thin and underweight models, such as those that appeared in recent ads for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

However, following the Protein World experience, TfL may go even further and also ban ads that suggest that one body type is better than another.

Brands wishing to advertise on London’s Tubes or buses should therefore exercise caution when creating ads for products or services relating to fashion, beauty, fitness or weight loss that touch upon body image themes. Particularly when targeting younger people.

Where exactly TfL will draw the line on body shaming ads should become clearer over time. There is no doubt that TfL will be monitoring public opinion very closely in its effort to help make its four million daily passengers feel good about their bodies.

While the wording of the Protein World ad in conjunction with the image clearly caused many people to have concerns about body shaming, there is now a degree of uncertainty about other ads that simply show sexy young men and women who are slim, shapely or muscular advertising lingerie or underwear, even without the elements of sexuality that have been banned in recent years by the ASA.

The challenge now for advertisers and agencies will be to assess when an image that might be acceptable to the ASA will be unacceptable to TfL and whether we are likely to see other organisations looking to ban contentious advertising, even if they have already passed muster with the ASA.

Brinsley Dresden is partner and head of the Advertising & Marketing team at law firm Lewis Silkin LLP