When it comes to the bikini-clad woman with the slim body in Protein World’s poster campaign, adland can’t decide which way to look. Should the industry disown what the company has done in its name and turn towards the activists outraged enough to stage a protest in Hyde Park and encourage the defacing of the ads? Or should it be fearful about the long-term impact on freedom of expression if the work is banned on offence grounds? There’s certainly some sympathy for Protein World’s defence of its tactics, telling its Twitter critics to "grow up".
Having fielded more than 200 complaints, the Advertising Standards Authority has begun an investigation into whether the poster is offensive. The campaign can no longer appear in its current form because of its health claims. But as Tom Bazeley, M&C Saatchi’s chief executive, points out, showing somebody a vision they aspire to before implicating the product as a means to achieve it is hardly new. "This takes it to an extreme, of course," he adds. "But I think some people might be getting their bikini bottoms in a twist."
Peter Souter, chairman and chief creative officer, TBWA\London
"One of the reasons I’m in favour of free speech is that it allows companies like Protein World to put themselves out of business more quickly by doing crass and sexist advertising like this. All it will do is deter people from picking the product off the shelves. As a man, I don’t find the ad offensive. But if I had a young daughter, I wouldn’t want her to see advertising that suggests having a flat stomach and thrusting breasts is the right image for her. I can’t see how advertising for which you’re continually being slagged off can increase sales."
Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner, Mr President
"I don’t know about a ban, although this is a terrible piece of advertising for which there’s no excuse. Protein World seems to be presenting itself as the Ryanair of health supplements by telling people that if they don’t like its advertising, then it isn’t for them. Yet this ad is old-fashioned and unrealistic when it could have been much more realistic. I would have tried to find a way of presenting the product’s health benefits. Our objective should always be to create ads that engage with people and don’t bash them over the head."
Russell Ramsey, executive creative director, J Walter Thompson London
"The reaction to Protein World’s ad is pretty predictable and the moral outrage is slightly over the top. It’s almost as though people are pretending to be offended. The fact is that the ad is not so very different to what you see in newspapers and on TV all the time. There’s little doubt that Protein World has done this quite deliberately in order to get the PR that will make it famous. Too many people are taking this too seriously. It’s a complete overreaction even though Protein World’s reaction could be said to have been too bullish."
Helen Calcraft, founding partner, Lucky Generals
"Even though I went to last weekend’s Hyde Park protest with my two teenage daughters, I’m not pro-censorship. I’m not in favour of ads being banned and I don’t think posters should be defaced. It’s not that I’m ambivalent, but I do see both sides of the issue. As a woman, the ads disgust me. But, as a communications professional who has had Paddy Power as a client, I can’t help but have a grudging respect for Protein World’s strategy. It has been very robust in defending itself and it’s clear that it has given a lot of thought to its strategy."