Khan vowed to take on body-shaming ads while campaigning for mayor, responding to the kerfuffle over Protein World’s infamous “beach body ready” ad last spring.
Protests in London included a “Take Back the Beach” rally; more than 70,000 signatures on a Change.org petition calling for the ads'; and hundreds of complaints to Britain’s advertising watchdog, ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), which launched an investigation into the campaign.
Despite the controversy, ASA later ruled that the provocative image—an aggressively fit model in a yellow bikini, along with text asking consumers whether they were “beach body ready”—was neither offensive nor irresponsible.
Now Khan has intervened, asking Transport for London (TfL) to ban ads that might be perceived as body-shaming.
Going forward, TfL will establish its own advertising steering group to monitor campaigns with advertising partners and make sure their ads still comply with ASA regulations.
Mayor Khan’s intervention is, apparently, a noble one: he simply wants to protect us from these harmful images.
“As a father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies,” he said in a statement. “Nobody should feel pressurized, while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies and I want to send a clear message to the advertising industry about this.”
The message is indeed clear and politically pointed: Khan is pushing a feminist agenda and taking up cudgels against our body image-obsessed culture and its “unrealistic expectations” for women.
Sure, he’s responding to outcry over Protein World’s ad campaign with a populist initiative. But he’s also policing women’s bodies by determining what’s “unrealistic,” and shielding sensitive eyes from ads that might fit that descriptor.
TfL commercial development director Graeme Craig suggested that women who take public transportation don’t have a choice but to look at body-shaming ads and internalize their message.
“Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them, and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment,” he said, as if the patriarchy were a multi-limbed creature peeling open passengers’ eyes until they’re effectively brainwashed, convinced that they shouldn’t go to the beach unless they look like the poster girl for a slimming protein powder.
This is not to belittle women who do feel this way, or to deny that our cultural fetishization of lean, toned bodies has affected their personal struggles. But Mayor Khan’s initiative perpetuates a contradiction within the feminist narrative: how can women expect to be treated as equals while also insisting that they be protected from everyday imagery, “realistic” or not?
The premise of Protein World’s “beach body ready” campaign—drink our shakes and look like a supermodel in a bikini!—is patently absurd. But it’s fairly standard in the world of advertising.
Subway stations in New York City are decorated with beauty ads promising “tighter, firmer, younger looking skin” from some “board-certified dermatologist;” beautiful women selling “period-proof underwear;” Seamless.com urging commuters to order a bacon cheeseburger and French fries; Jägermeister reminding New Yorkers that the German digestif is, in fact, “the spirit that never sleeps.”
Surely London has their own versions of these ads, yet Mayor Kahn doesn’t seem too concerned about teenage Tube riders being seduced by images of chilled liquor bottles.
Where’s his urge to protect obese people with heart disease from tempting fast-food campaigns? Shouldn’t he be concerned about commuters gambling the last of their savings after seeing one too many lottery ticket ads?
Advertisers have always used seductive images to get consumers’ attention. And when a campaign misses the mark, as Gap recently did with an ad that was branded “racist,” the company often apologizes and shelves the ad.
The advertising industry isn’t in the business of selling us the truth. Ads are meant to manipulate us, and some are more clever at it than others. In the very first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper comes up with a new tagline to distract consumers from health risks linked to smoking and rescue the company’s relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes.
The truth rarely makes us want to buy things, so advertising appeals to our aspirations and emotions to get us to spend money. As Don Draper said: “You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells.”
Mayor Kahn’s decision to ban ads on the Tube that can “demean people, especially women” or “make them feel pressurized” isn’t going to change the nature of advertising.
It’s not going to change the broader culture that these ads appeal to, either, just because we don’t see them on our daily commute. And we shouldn’t have to police the culture in order to affect change.