I wish people would get a sense of proportion about advertising, but all they do is worry about proportions. Case en pointe: last year, a famous poster featuring a slender model, with the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”, sparked immense outrage among young women. Protesters called its subject too thin, and petitioned to have the poster removed – on the grounds that it would promote unrealistic body standards.
I thought the matter had been laid to rest, until today – when I heard that Sadiq Khan had launched a new and rather censorious crusade. Distressed by the saga of 2015, the Mayor plans to police adverts on the tube that could cause confidence issues, particularly among young women. Speaking about his campaign, he said: “As the 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”, adding that: “Nobody should feel pressurised, while they travel on the Tube or bus.”
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Khan’s latest effort, which seems stupid at best, dangerous at worst. Perhaps the biggest issue with it is that it diminishes the role of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – which has, for years, been a largely accepted and appreciated authority on what can stay and go on our billboards. Last year, despite receiving 200 complaints, the organisation resisted when asked to remove the “Beach body ready” campaign. I was glad to see that its representatives did not cave to a humourless, oversensitive mob.
But thanks to Sadiq, the mob will have its way. TFL now has to block any advert that could be accused of body shaming. This is ridiculous, as what might constitute body shaming is such a nuanced and subjective thing. Given the upset over the “Beach body ready” posters – that featured a real person – I wonder who on earth will now be allowed to grace our tube lines? Who will be deemed as not offensive?
The fact of the matter is that adverts are aspirational. When I buy a shampoo from L’Oreal, I do not suddenly believe that I am going to look like Cheryl Cole. Posters and their stars are not designed to reflect reality – but to promote an idealistic image, which we can buy into. What kind of wet society are we living in, where people have to be protected from things that look nice. Instead of dividing adverts into the good and bad, we should get a dose of reality – and accept that we can’t all look “Beach body ready” (but we can try).
If this is one of Sadiq Khan’s best ideas as Mayor, I’m seriously concerned. It shows a desperate lack of humour, and someone who will simply censor things he does not like. Perhaps worst of all, it demonstrates a man who will abandon all logic to be Mr Popular.
He should take some lessons from the ASA; an institution that firmly understands the importance of policy before populism.