Try to find a picture of the Protein World “Are you beach body ready?” advertisement that isn’t vandalized.
Go ahead and Google. The original ad, giant posters of which ran in the London Underground, has been vandalized, parodied, and flipped-off the city over. Women in London are none too pleased with the suggestion that being “beach body ready” means looking like the model in the poster: boobs high, bikini bottoms slung low, stomach flat as the Maldives, waist apparently no wider than her head.
"Are you beach body ready?" ad asks. Then London has the best response. pic.twitter.com/lJFXkG0iLY
— Amanda Wills (@AmandaWills) April 27, 2015
Over 66,000 people have signed the Change.org petition calling for the removal of the campaign on the grounds that it’s “directly targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product.” A “Taking back the beach” protest against the ad has been scheduled for May 3 in Hyde Park. The online swimwear retailer Swimsuits For All published its own spin on the ad, starring the plus-size model Ashley Graham, that asked “are you reading for this beach body?” On Instagram, where they posted this response, the caption reads “ALL bodies are #BeachBodyReady.”
Protein World’s very mature response to this social commentary was to send terrifically douchey messages to people on Twitter, like “why make your insecurities our problem“.
— Protein World (@ProteinWorld) April 23, 2015
But this questionable PR tactic could not save the much-maligned posters: the ad is slated to come down in within the next three days.
The removal, in and of itself, is not a major statement, considering the campaign was ending its three-week run on the London Underground anyway. But the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority is investigating the ad campaign primarily for its potentially false weight loss claims — the supplement industry is not exactly a bastion of accuracy — and “to establish if it breaks harm and offence rules or is socially irresponsible,” as a spokesman said.
As we can’t have backlash without some backlash-to-the-backlash, there is also a Change.org petition defending the ads. It has only 1,400 supporters. The brief missive on the page zooms out from the Protein World ads to “The fad of being offended at everything” that “needs to end.” During an interview with “Good Morning Britain,” Protein World’s head of global marketing claimed that the company’s office “had a bomb threat,” and the chief executive of Protein World has called his critics “terrorists” who are “irrational and extremist.” Oh, and he wouldn’t voluntarily remove the ads unless that Change.org petition got one million signatures.
Lizzie Crocker at The Daily Beast sided with Protein World, calling the outrage against the ads “patronizing to women with its demands that they be protected from everyday imagery” and mocked the ASA’s intervention with the campaign as ensuring women “won’t be assaulted by the sight of a model’s navel on a large billboard in the tube.”
But to suggest that tens of thousands of people are taking issue with the Protein World ad because they are offended by, of all things, “a model’s navel,” is to deliberately misrepresent the protest to make its participants look ridiculous. It is not at all unreasonable to point out that, both in the U.K. and in the U.S., citizens travel through an advertisement-saturated culture, and that advertisements, like all media, can and do influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of people who see them.
Dr. James C. Tsao, chair of the advertising department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, said the lowest estimate of how many ads the average person encounters in a single day is about 500. Five hundred advertisements every single day.
Crocker’s piece insists that ads like this one from Protein World are “tedious, familiar fantasies that we can ignore or indulge in as we wish.” But you can no sooner opt out of advertising than you can opt out of the weather. We are bombarded with these images all day, every day, for our entire lives. It is nonsensical to suggest that a person should be able to see an advertisement without internalizing its message; after all, the entire point of advertising is to send a message. Any effective advertising will, by definition, have an effect on the person who sees it. And the cumulative effect of seeing ads that depict women in this way — the usual offensive portrayal: as nearly-naked sex objects photoshopped to the thigh-gapped hilt — on both women and men cannot be neutral, and it is highly unlikely that it’s positive.
“People’s reaction to advertising isn’t only rational. It’s emotional,” said Dr. Angeline Close Scheinbaum, associate professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin. “Whether you think about it or not, you are constantly comparing yourself” to the images you see in advertisements, she said. “It’s not on the top of your mind. You’re not walking around saying, ‘I’ll compare myself to this girl and this girl.’ But it’s an innate human trait.”
So women internalize all the crap that the ad is selling to men, and men internalize an expectation about female bodies: what they should look like and how sexually available they should be.
It’s an advertising truism that sex sells, a notion that “has been in the industry for so long, it’s hard to uproot this myth,” said Tsao. But the sex that Protein World is selling, like the sex that so many companies sell, is a monolithic vision of what sex is supposed to be and who is supposed to want it. Protein World’s definition of selling sex is selling an outdated version of sexiness to a populace that has never been less inclined to co-sign the “skinny is sexy” idea. This is marketing aimed at a stereotypical heterosexual male circa 1996. Okay, cool, I guess, but what about everybody else? And what about the effect that this ad, and ads like it, have on people other than its target demographic?
Which brings us to how this advertising sausage gets made, or, more crucially, by whom: in the United States, about three percent of all the creative professionals at agencies — your Don Drapers, your post-season-one Peggy Olsons, your Sal Romanos — are female. So 97 percent of the people making decisions about what ads will look like, in this country, are men. This, even though women control approximately 80 percent of consumer spending.
After the news broke that the Protein World ads would never appear in the London Tube again, Charlotte Baring posted an update on the Change.org petition page in which she not only thanked all the people who signed but also, surprisingly, Protein World:
“Because this petition was not just about this advert, but the wider issue of the treatment of women (and sometimes men) in the media. Sexualised images shouldn’t be a normality, especially in such public places… And Protein World have helped us to have this debate in the media – without them our campaign would not have existed and we wouldn’t have brought the issue of sexism in advertising onto national press.”