Seeing thin models in media is bad for your psyche, and body-shaming is bad for brands’ reputations.
By Francie Diep
A Protein World ad in the London Underground. (Photo: Change.org)
London’s mayor announced this week a ban on advertisements appearing on the city’s subways and buses that “could reasonably be seen as likely to cause pressure to conform to an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape.” The prohibition was inspired by protests over an ad that showed up in the London Underground last year, featuring a slim woman in a bikini surrounded by the words “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” The ad was for weight-loss supplements by a company called Protein World.
Mayor Sadiq Khan said he worried about Londoners, especially girls and women, feeling ashamed of their bodies because of the ads. (Graeme Craig, Transport for London’s commercial development director, told the New York Times that stricter laws like Khan’s are necessary on public transportation because of limited space; riders have nowhere to avert their gaze.)
There’s plenty of science to back the idea that body-centric advertising affects people’s self-esteem. In 2002, a meta-analysis found that 25 studies generally agreed that girls under the age of 19 feel significantly worse about their bodies after viewing images of the slim women who dominate mainstream media. Similarly, a 2008 meta-analysis of 77 studies found exposure to media is linked to body-image problems in women. And it’s not just women: Another recent meta-analysis of 25 studies found that media images are linked to body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, and excessive exercising in men.
Public health aside, Protein World’s ads seem out of touch with a modern culture that increasingly demands its brands to celebrate more varied body types. Since the early 2000s, many companies, especially those selling to women, have embraced the notion of bolstering—rather than undermining—viewers’ self-esteem. They began doing so after marketing research revealed deep discontent among American women over the thin models appearing in ads. As one consultant told me in 2015: “What many viewers are looking for today is a more inspirational, aspirational message. Don’t tell me what I need to worry about. I already know that.”
“ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” tells you what to worry about. That’s so 1997.
This shift in strategy doesn’t mean advertising executives now have the public’s interests in mind, nor even that such ads are necessarily better for people’s psyches. It just means marketers have realized they risk backlash and eroding people’s goodwill toward their brands if they run campaigns like Protein World’s.