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
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
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 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
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.