POV: Why are women’s bodies considered taboo by advertising authorities?

Although we’re not even halfway through 2024, three prominent campaigns featuring women’s bodies and women’s issues have already been banned by advertising authorities. In this week’s POV, we look into these regulations and the evidence of subjectivity from the position of authority.

As we approach the year’s midpoint, it appears 2024 is becoming the year of banned advertising. In the past five months alone we’ve seen numerous behemoth campaigns, often introduced with budget-busting launches, quickly retracted once exposed to public opinion. However, campaign shelf lives are not only being shortened due to a misunderstanding of potential public perception. Campaigns centring women’s bodies, and women’s issues, are being banned by advertising authorities.

Advertising news was shaped earlier this year by stories of restrictions. Calvin Klein’s history of purposefully eye-catching art direction kickstarted proceedings, with The Bear star Jeremy Allen White’s unclad photoshoot. However, its counterpart campaign, starring FKA Twigs, was swiftly banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) following just two complaints, claiming that the image “inappropriately sexualised” the artist.

Calvin Klein defended the shoot, explaining how the artist “had chosen to identify with the Calvin Klein brand, and the ads contained a progressive and enlightened message”. FKA Twigs highlighted the “double standards” evident in such a decision, stating: “I do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. I see a beautiful strong woman of colour whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine.” Despite these arguments, the campaign was withdrawn from public view.

In the very same week, the ASA turned its attention to BBH’s campaign for GirlvsCancer. Created by the advertising agency and a cohort of creative talent, the out of home campaign highlighted the “rarely discussed” experience of sexual intimacy among cancer patients and survivors. Featuring sensitively intimate photography by Katie Burdon – passionate and evocative of touch, but not explicit in its portrayal of the female form– any creative nuance was dismissed and described as “inappropriate”. The campaign’s copywriting also came under fire, as it led with the tagline “Cancer won’t be the last thing that f**cks me”. The ASA viewed the statement’s overall context (despite asterisks on the expletive) as too explicit, given “viewers would understand it to be an allusion to a colloquial term for sexual intercourse.”

In the past few days, another campaign centring the female form has, again, been banned. Centring a new partnership between cook and food writer Molly Baz and Swehl, a community platform and product range of breastfeeding essentials, the collaboration centred on a recipe developed for lactation cookies, designed to stimulate milk production. Scheduled for a one-week advertisement in Times Square, the shoot featuring a pregnant Molly Baz holding the cookies – with a wink to the product’s use case – was banned after three days.

Deemed to have violated “guidelines on acceptable content” by OOH organisation Clear Channel, it was another case of double standards in presenting a woman’s body. As succinctly put by AdWeek’s Christina Garnett: “In the same location, advertisements from brands like Skims and Michael Kors routinely showcase women’s bodies in a decidedly sexual context, particularly through lingerie ads. The stark contrast between the reaction to sexualized images of breasts and the censoring of a lactation-related advertisement highlights a peculiar double standard.”

In some cases, advertising regulations around this subject matter are clear, while others are more open to interpretation. For example, in the UK, some of the ASA’s regulations, such as how advertisements “must not portray or represent anyone who is, or seems to be, under 18 in a sexual way,” are self-explanatory. Others, such as “must not use a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention” are dependent on context and the viewer. In terms of nudity specifically, the ASA outlines advertisements featuring nakedness are likely to receive complaints. However, “Providing the level of nudity is not explicit or gratuitous, and is relevant to the product, some nudity may be considered acceptable.” This is especially true of product-focused campaigns: “Some nudity may be less likely to be considered offensive if the nudity is relevant to the advertised product, for example lingerie and beauty products.”

BBH’s campaign for GirlvsCancer is an example of loose regulatory interpretation in action. Developed with authenticity in mind, the campaign was crafted with research groups and featured women currently in cancer treatment or recovery, to create “striking imagery in a sensitive, sensual way,” Helen Rhodes, ECD at BBH, tells It’s Nice That. “It was a project going up against two taboo subjects – cancer and women’s sexuality – but it was about trying to remove stigma. And for a small charity with not a lot of budget, you’re trying to create a campaign that gets noticed,” she continues. “We knew there was a risk in featuring a line like ‘Cancer won’t be the last thing that f**cks me’, but we didn’t want to water down that message… We didn’t set out to make something that got banned, but the bigger risk would have been creating something invisible that went by completely unnoticed.”

With this in mind, BBH weren’t exactly surprised the campaign was deemed unacceptable, but Helen says they were “disappointed”. When the ASA reaches a verdict in response to complaints – which Helen explains were also only a handful, similar in response rate to Calvin Klein’s campaign – the team are alerted, but with little opportunity to challenge such a decision. “We asked to put a case against it but, from what I understand, once it has been passed it’s very hard to overturn it. It’s such a shame there’s no conversation.”

What BBH’s case would have likely outlined was the duty of care considered: the focus groups; the authentic featuring of genuine experience; the upfront, needed conversation starter of sexual intimacy for cancer patients; and the placement of advertisements too, purposefully placed in areas where they were unlikely to be seen by under-18s. Instead, Helen says that the ASA appears to “mainly look at the negative, not the positive that comes from these pieces of work,” she says. “The interesting aspect with this whole issue, and probably the heart of the problem, is that women’s bodies continue to be deemed taboo by absolutely everyone, apart from themselves,” Helen adds. “I’m sure it’s due to ingrained behaviour over the years. You see it all the time, like how Facebook used to block ads that target women with menopause, but allow ads for companies selling erectile dysfunction pills – that’s a crazy dichotomy. On femininity, motherhood and the sexuality of women’s bodies, it feels like times really do need to change.”

While every situation, and nuance behind an advertising campaign is different, we can’t ignore the common denominator in these recent bans, and the evident subjectivity from a position of authority. As Helen states: “In a very short space of time there have been three prominent campaigns featuring women, or talking about women’s issues, that have been banned. We need to start asking ourselves questions as to why.”

Potentially, the ASA’s definition of “product” may warrant questioning. Why, for example, would an advert with similar levels of nudity be deemed acceptable if the aim was to buy underwear, as opposed to breastfeeding products? Helen simply calls for a wider-lens view on such decisions: “Consider the message, the meaning behind the work,” she says. If one or two complaints can warrant the ASA’s attention, why aren’t the other, overwhelmingly positive reactions also taken into consideration?

There is also the warranted concern that an increase in such bans may affect the level of creative freedom given to agencies – having an advertisement banned is costly for a client. If such restrictions become increasingly considered, there’s a risk that genuinely beneficial messages may be suppressed, limiting the diversity of topics discussed in broader societal contexts. “Ideally,” concludes Helen, “regulations would be revised by these bodies with decision-making power to be more up to date with the whole of society, as opposed to certain pockets,” she says. For now: “You can’t let it stop you from doing work that is part of the conversation.”

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POV is a column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry.

As a column, POV is an editorial reflection of our wider work on Insights, digging deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To learn more about visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, click below.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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