The trouble with nudes

Will the Brits accept nudity in TV ads? Neutralia’s nipple pushed back the boundaries, but new ITC research advises caution.

Will the Brits accept nudity in TV ads? Neutralia’s nipple pushed back

the boundaries, but new ITC research advises caution.

A bulging lunch box can be as provocative as an erect nipple when it

comes to stirring moral outrage in the bemused consumers of ad

campaigns, according to new ITC research on what the public thinks of

nudity in ads.

The spark for the research was Neutralia’s 1994 commercial for its

shower gel. Created by Publicis FCB Paris, it was the first ad on UK

television to feature a woman’s nipple.

Of course, there is a functional, and therefore acceptable, reason for

showing a naked woman in an ad for shower gel. And for the French a

nipple or two has traditionally been as integral to an ad as a pack-shot

for the Brits. But the Neutralia spot was different. While the product

benefits are described on voiceover, the ensuing shots show a naked girl

enthusiastically soaping her breasts. Later in the ad, now clothed, she

caresses her breasts again.

Across a year, the ad - which appeared in seven other countries -

generated 199 complaints to the Independent Television Commission. To

date, that figure has risen to a staggering 309.

The offending nipple was accepted by the TV companies for transmission

after the 9pm watershed. Not, as some thought, as an oversight, but

apparently to see whether existing conventions about nudity were still

valid. In response to the complaints, the ITC decreed that the Neutralia

ad was not inherently unsuitable for transmission after 9pm, but decided

that research into the area would be useful for both advertisers and

agency creatives.

While the ITC will not be setting out guidelines on nudity, the survey

marks an important watershed in the development of UK advertising and

the way it is regulated. For although nudity is allowed in other media,

such as press and poster ads, the criteria have always been different

for the small screen. The assumption is that where nudity in an

editorial environment - such as a magazine - has to be sought out, it is

acceptable. But on a universal and more spontaneous medium, such as TV,

it is not.

The ITC initially commissioned attitudinal research on an omnibus

survey. The findings made clear what was already suspected: that the

intricacy of the issues demanded a qualitative research approach, too.

The Qualitative Consultancy was called in.

Personality turned out to be one of three key factors determining a

viewer’s response to nudity in ads. The others are environment and the

content of the ad itself. The research found five distinct personality

types. The disapproving groups are the Puritans (who are embarrassed)

and the Moralists (who say it shouldn’t be allowed). The Liberals form

the largest group, and they feel that too much fuss is made about the

issue. Actively in favour of nudity are the Crusaders (who say it

encourages people to be less prudish) and the Libertines (the smallest

group, who want to see as much nudity as possible).

Overall, the research suggests that slightly more than half of the

viewing public takes a fairly open-minded view of nudity in advertising.

Anything more explicit on TV, however, would strongly divide attitudes

to acceptability. Frank Willis, the ITC’s director of advertising and

sponsorship, warns: ‘This research offers no support to the view that

anything goes in TV ads.’

Environment also affects an ad’s acceptability. Place in schedule,

channel and timing in relation to the watershed are crucial. Nudity is

more acceptable if ads are placed in more adult material and it is more

tolerable on cable and satellite channels and, to some extent, on

Channel 4.

And for those who still cringe when a risque ad comes on when you are

watching TV with your parents, you are not alone: nudity in commercials

is less acceptable when seen in company. One respondent summed it up:

‘With parents in the room, you start checking your nails and watching

the ceiling.’

The groups were first shown a general reel of ads, compiled to represent

a number of controversial issues such as advertising to children and

sanpro commercials. After this, the groups discussed nudity

specifically, having watched a reel which contained everything from the

Danepak naturist spot to work for Brylcreem, Davidoff, Perrier, Bio

yoghurt, XS aftershave and the Neutralia ad.

The Brylcreem spot shows a man showering (waist up), putting on a

raincoat and going out. He arrives at a gathering of women, and drops

the raincoat as the camera pans very quickly down his body. Female heavy

breathing starts on the soundtrack and it turns out that he is the model

for an art class.

The ad was judged acceptable at any time by most of the sample. A key

factor was the relevance of nudity to the product. And there was a

coherent, well-executed storyline building up to the nudity itself. A

minority - mostly men who were uncomfortable with male nudity,

particularly a man stripping for a female audience - found the ad

unacceptable. Some older men were worried about the spot’s homoerotic


Danepak’s ad, through Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, lies at the other

end of the glamour scale. The film shows a family of naturists, young

and old, having a barbecue. The ‘danger areas’ are cleverly hidden by

props, and this contributes to the ad’s acceptability. ‘A little bit of

humour and you can get away with a lot more,’ one respondent said.

Few of the European ads shown to the sample group had the charm of the

Danepak spot. The lasting images of the French, Spanish and Italian

commercials are of frolicking girls, come-on expressions and clumsy

sexual innuendo.

A spot for the French shower gel, Tahiti, shows a woman and two men

trekking through a tropical jungle. It rains (of course) and all three

use Tahiti on bare chests (of course). Fully dressed again, they frolic

in a waterfall.

Only a minority of the sample found this ad acceptable at any time. Most

opted for acceptable with restrictions, mainly after the 9pm watershed.

Areas of concern were the director’s penchant for ‘more breast than

chest’, the voyeuristic style and the implied menage a trois.

The most risque ad in the research was for a French rum called Old Nick.

The commercial, which involves close-up topless and full-frontal nudity

from a distance, fails the relevance, taste and just about any other

test you could put it through. To wit; heavily made-up naked girl

giggles suggestively to camera on deserted beach, fondling rum bottle.

She joggles off for a swim then returns to lie down beside the rum

bottle. The end.

For the Moralists, the ad scored a double whammy by using nudity to sell

alcohol. Never mind the pitiful production values and invisible

storyline, this ad pushed the boundaries to an unacceptable extent for

most of the sample.

Advertisers who want to glean some sound advice from this report will,

above all, steer clear of irrelevant sex. They should also avoid female

breasts (unless from the side), male bottoms, lingering shots or moving

images of nudes (such as a running woman) and sleazy, badly produced


The tone of ads fundamentally affects how they are judged. The general

rule is that viewers’ acceptance of material cannot be based on the

degree of nudity: humour (as in the Danepak ad) can actually make 100

per cent nakedness appealing, as can high production values (Brylcreem)

or an artistic style.

As for Neutralia, the research group was generally aware of the

controversy surrounding the ad, if a little bemused by the sexual

overtones. One respondent said: ‘When that one for the shower gel came

on I thought I was seeing things. I turned to the wife and said, ‘Did I

actually see that?’ She said, ‘Oh yes.’ If you get away with that, when

is it going to stop?’

Willis therefore counsels extreme caution. ‘People still see a massive

difference between programme content and ad content,’ he says. ‘My

advice to advertisers is still that they should be very wary of using


‘Nudity in Television Advertising’ is available from the ITC information

office, price pounds 5


The nudity research was conducted by the Qualitative Consultancy in two

stages. Initially, nudity was looked at in the context of other

television and advertising issues before it was focused on by showing

ads with different degrees of nudity.

The first stage comprised 12 group discussions, 12 one-to-one interviews

and 12 interviews with couples.

Both men and women were represented in the sample, as was a wide range

of life stage (16-year-olds through to pensioners), location (North,

Midlands, South and urban, suburban, rural) and social class.

The second stage consisted of qualitative, one-to-one interviews which

lasted about 30 minutes. In all, 120 of these interviews were completed.

All interviewing took place between 30 November 1994 and 11 March 1995.


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