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Banning Adidas’ bare-breasts advert enforces the sexualisation of breasts rather than preventing it

A week or so ago the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK declared that Adidas had acted inappropriately in distributing an advert a few months ago which featured an assortment of bare breasts.

This is the tagline for the advert, and for as long as it remains, how it appears on Twitter:

We believe women’s breasts in all shapes and sizes deserve support and comfort. Which is why our new sports bra range contains 43 styles, so everyone can find the right fit for them.

Adidas’ clear intent from the advert was to show how they were seeking to accommodate a range of different body types with their products. The images used were not presented in a remotely sexual manner. The ASA accepted that, and yet because the advert was fairly widely available in the public realm, they considered the use of nudity to be likely to cause harm and offence and thus be socially irresponsible. Unfortunately, it is thinking like that which causes breasts to be seen only as sexual objects. So while the advert was taking steps to correct body-shaming social attitudes, by banning it the ASA has managed to enforce them, and thus ensure that imagery like this must be seen as unacceptably sexualised. What a mess.

I was surprised when this advert first popped up, but pleased. A big brand willing to accept and celebrate the diversity of real bodies. The Twitter version of the advert features 25 different women (a poster version had more). While I did feel it was skewed a little towards representing larger breasts, I supposed that made some sense considering it was advertising sports bras — Which if anyone feels the need to use one, tends to be more those with larger breasts, to gain a little restraint when moving vigorously. Regardless, it was bold to use nudity in this way, but I felt still carefully restrained; it was truly and clearly seeking to celebrate diversity, and not in any way representing a sexualised view of the female body.

It is also unavoidably and obviously seeking to capitalise on the sensationalism of bodies and the shock value of nudity. But in this case, I feel it was a positive sort of shock: Look, this is what bodies are actually like. This is why we’re making this product equally diverse. Rather than: Look at these sexy sexy boobs.

Meanwhile imagery of women in underwear or revealing outfits looking obviously and intentionally sexy are so pervasive it’s not even notable in all but the most extreme cases (where the ASA has stepped in before). In a gender-equal sex-positive world maybe that wouldn’t be problematic (albeit it would undoubtedly be presented differently from the patriarchal imagery we’re used to now). But we are nowhere near that world, so right now such imagery acts to entrench the idea of women as little more than sexual objects. So I get it ASA, you want to be careful to guard against sexualisation. But you misfired here!

Here’s how they summarised their decision:

The ASA acknowledged that the intention of the ads was to show that women’s breasts differed in shape and size, which was relevant to the sports bras being advertised. Although we did not consider that the way the women were portrayed was sexually explicit or objectified them, we considered that the depiction of naked breasts was likely to be seen as explicit nudity. We noted the breasts were the main focus in the ads, and there was less emphasis on the bras themselves, which were only referred to in the accompanying text.

They completely miss why this advert works so strongly. A similar grid of a bunch of people in bras would look far more homogenised, because that’s what bras do: They make breasts conform, they reshape them, control them, they hide the true form and variety of breasts, they shield the world from the evil-all-threatening-nipple. So Adidas really could not make the same statement so clearly if they did not show actual breasts before their products swoop in and smush them into acceptability.

The ASA also had a problem with the novelty of the advert, which they felt itself would cause offence, because you know, surprise boobs!

We considered that the image was not suitable for use in untargeted media, particularly where it could be seen by children. We concluded that ads [b] and [c] were inappropriately targeted, and were likely to cause widespread offence.
We noted the content typically featured on the Adidas Twitter feed promoted their sportswear for women and considered explicit nudity was not in keeping with their usual content. Because ad [a] featured explicit nudity, we concluded it was likely to cause widespread offence in that media.

How can you ever seek to deconstruct the idea of bodies, and especially breasts, not only being for sexual consumption, if you actively seek to reinforce the idea that normal nude non-sexualised bodies are in of themselves offensive?

The think-of-the-children line is especially egregious. You know, those children who in many cases not so long ago were routinely fed literally by breasts. Children do not automatically see shame and sexuality in nudity, we teach it to them. We could teach them not to fear their own bodies. We could teach them how wonderfully diverse bodies are, how we should embrace and celebrate diversity. But the ASA clearly doesn’t want to enable that when it comes to breasts.

And in fact Adidas did take care not to place their two (just two) poster placements in places of particular sensitivity. As ASA made note:

They said their agency had submitted the ads at brief stage to CAP’s Copy Advice team, who had advised that the images were not sexual and did not appear to objectify women, but that there was risk attached to the use of nudity in commercial advertising, especially in untargeted spaces. Adidas said that, as a result of that advice, they had not placed the ads near schools or religious venues.

One of those posters also censored the nipples, as does the Instagram version of the advert, the latter of which curiously is not made note of by the ASA’s report. But they did even have a problem with the censored poster:

We acknowledged that in ad [c] the women’s nipples had been obscured by pixelation. Although the image was less immediately explicit, we considered that the breasts were still visible and recognisably naked, and therefore the effect of the image would be the same

Yup, even a version of advert that nudity censors of Instagram found agreeable enough to permit is too naked for the ASA here.

There were just twenty-four complainants that the ASA was responding to; not exactly an overwhelming clamour of offended eyes considering the social media versions of the adverts had engagement from many tens of thousands of people.

Even in a society where nudity really isn’t close to normalised at the moment, people can accept nudity in some contexts. We are very used to seeing it in a sexual context in media. The use of it to show normal non-sexualised bodies is more novel, but I think broadly quite accepted, because even people not quite at ease with their own nudity, or other people being naked around them, are deep down desperate for validation, and a rare advert that shows real and varied bodies delivers that.

Nudity might cause some discomfort to some because we’re not used to it. But discomfort is not the same offensive, unless we allow ourselves to believe it is. We (in this case that is we as controlled by the ASA) can choose to embrace bodies as normal everyday good healthy things, or we can choose to actively hide them. The latter though means we also actively learn to assume naked bodies are always sexualised, even when in many cases (as I’ve written before) the clothed body is more sexual than the nude. If we let the body simply being a body become interpreted as offensive then we reach an absurd place where we are actively causing ourselves to hate and fear our own bodies because we let ourselves believe they are fundamentally forbidden and bad things.

This advert had an impact because it remains so unusual to show genuine diversity and normality of bodies in any media, and moreover to show bodies just as themselves at all. So letting this advert be seen as anything other than a positive moment on a journey to a more body-positive world only serves to entrench the idea that bodies shouldn’t be seen as positive amazing things, but some literally hidden evil. Of all the adverts the ASA could have sided against, this should not have been the one.


You can read the ASA’s full ruling on the Adidas advert on their website.


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