Billboard beauties: sky-high sexist advertising and why big business just don’t get it.

Feminism isn’t new. The concepts of objectification, the male gaze, and body positivity are not new. And it’s not like no-one’s ever heard of them either; feminists across the world have made it their business to be outspoken about these issues, past and present. Awareness projects like The Everyday Sexism Project are enlightening more and more people to the realities and depths of sexism in our society, encouraging victims of sexism to share their experiences and “shout back”, and famous men and women are actively and vocally supporting the fight for women’s rights. You’d have to be living in a soundproofed, blacked-out bubble not to notice that the way women are portrayed in the media is under intense scrutiny and that now, more than ever, we are not willing to take negative or damaging advertising lying down.

So why is it that we’re still seeing adverts like this?

This billboard, plastered all over the London underground, was Protein World’s latest attempt to tout their range of ‘dietary supplements’ by tapping into the age-old trick of pushing unrealistic standards of beauty onto women in the hope they will feel so bad about themselves they’ll buy into anything to look better. If you look like this particular airbrushed model, who we hand-picked through a modelling agency and various rounds of auditions, you’ll feel better about yourself, you won’t be ashamed to show your body at the beach anymore. That’s what the billboard says. It’s a shaming tactic. It laughs in the face of body positivity, or any kind of genuine call to be healthy. And as far as advertising strategies go it’s nothing new. It’s also nothing new to discover that the shaming devices they’re selling under the guise of “health products” for gym enthusiasts don’t actually work.

Alexandra Heminsley’s research in her article for women’s online magazine, The Pool, is enlightening:

“In reality [Protein World] sells a combination of basic whey protein (96 per cent protein and four per cent flavouring and sweeteners), meal-replacement shakes (93 per cent protein with four per cent flavouring and sweeteners, then some vitamins) and the grim-sounding Slender Blend capsules. Formerly known as Fat Melters, the latter contain 200mg caffeine per serving and not much else of any use. The average espresso contains 77mg caffeine. Little surprise online reviews talk largely of their laxative and nausea-inducing effects, and Protein World itself recommends you never take them after 3pm.”

Aside from the fact that “Slender Blend” is probably the most unappealing name for a meal supplement (calling to mind scenes from some kind of straight-to-dvd horror flick where Slender Man kills his victims via blender), these “health products” are far from healthy, they’re definitely not the best way to lose weight, they’re not going to deliver a body like the wonderful woman in the ad even if you want it, and therefore is guilty of both false advertising and attempting to shame women into subscribing to nothing more than another capitalist vulture, that only causes the pounds to drop off their bank balance.

What was new about the adverts was the public reaction. Which was simply, fantastic. Women got in their bikinis on tube platforms, they showed their awareness of, and resistance to, the company’s shaming tactics, turning the adverts around to be body positive, and men showed their solidarity.


But as fantastic, encouraging and wonderful as the reaction was, the fact that it had to happen at all was saddening. When it’s so painfully obvious to everyone else, why on earth are corporations so bone-headedly ignorant on this issue?

The unfortunate answer is that, in Protein World’s case, they aren’t. They aren’t ignorant at all, they simply just don’t care. Their attitude to women voicing their opinions, to women taking control of their bodies and their image, to women doing anything other than shutting up and keeping themselves to themselves, reveals a level of sexism in corporate business that goes a lot deeper than just their advertising campaigns. You only have to look to twitter to see how putrid this all stinks.

Juliette Burton, actor and comedian who has struggled with anorexia and bulimia in the past, and was also diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, signed the petition to have the adverts removed. She made her actions known, and Protein World responses were on a whole other level of prejudiced. When Danielle Newnham tweeted Arjun Seth, the CEO of Protein World, asking if he thought the replies to Juliette’s tweets were acceptable, he considered it appropriate to say that it sounded “like Juliette had a lot of issues well before she saw the PW ad.” Yes, seriously, the CEO with zero comprehension of damage control.

The official Protein World twitter account couldn’t even keep up a front of professionalism in their flagrant hate for everything feminist, retweeting these delicious nuggets of misogyny:


And the sickening truth is that they didn’t have to care, they didn’t have to appear professional. They don’t have to “get it”. They didn’t have to apologise or take the complaints seriously, they didn’t have to treat women with respect or humanity, because the adverts had paid off and the money was rolling in. After all, what are a few whiny bitches against all the bare dollar you’re making?

For me, and for many women who watched this unfold and go from bad to worse, this whole debacle was nothing short of incredulous. A company with a reputation and a brand to uphold was blatantly insensitive and utterly dismissive of women’s opinions and objections and was so secure in its own misogyny that it did not have to worry about mitigation at all. And this is a message even more damaging than the one in the advert: that misogyny pays, and money speaks louder than women.

Unfortunately Protein World is not the only billboard beauties offender, these are just some of the billboards submitted to the Everyday Sexism twitter account:


Because of course I almost always order a taxi in my underwear, drink my water half naked while cupping my boob, and enjoy viewing warehouse units in stockings and a thong, holding a gun. It is simply unnecessary to advertise these products by associating them with naked women. In fact, the more sinister undertones to this advertising are, again, the attitudes of those who are making them. Selling a product or service by using a woman’s body for no other reason than to boost profit, because boobs = cash, is selling the idea of the female body as marketable. It displays the female body as a commodity, a consumable, something with no more worth than the product or service on offer. Not only do adverts like this add to the social pressure put on women to adhere to unrealistic standards of beauty, but they directly contribute to rape culture.

The most recent case of these billboard blunders was the NAT bus company, with their informative advert on the backs of their buses:


At first glance, it’s a joke. You get the joke, it’s not really that funny and contains awkward associations with prostitution. You can imagine the marketing board at NAT coming up with this idea and thinking it was witty and clever, in a situation akin to those tasks on The Apprentice where you can’t quite believe they managed to get it so badly wrong.  Look again and you realise exactly how unwitty, not clever, and frankly confusing it is. The use of sexualised images of men and women to advertise something as mundane as public transport really baffles. An all-day ticket for £3 is a bloody good deal all on its own, why do you need to stick a semi-naked woman on there? What does it add? To be honest, you could have just had the plain sign on the back of the bus and the secretly filthy minds of the British public would have read the words “Ride me all day”, had a quiet chuckle on the way to work and forgotten about it by lunchtime. You see, it’s not the joke that’s the problem, it’s the use of sexualised bodies as a tool for pushing products. The use of sexualised bodies to advertise something that has no relevance or benefit to the body of the model or anyone else, but is purely and simply stating that the body is there for eye-candy, for consumption, to look at while you consider whatever it is being advertised.

Thankfully, NAT responded to complaints about their adverts in a professional and speedy manner, one which restored my faith in the power of the public opinion to force companies to change their attitudes. The offending buses were pulled off the roads and the adverts removed within 24 hours of complaints being registered, the company issued a formal public apology which stated that “The slogan of ‘ride me all day for £3,’ while being a little tongue in cheek, was in no way intended to cause offense to either men or women, if the advertisement has done so, then we apologize unreservedly. There has certainly been no intention to objectify either men or women.”

It’s responses like this that give me hope. Hope that, against bull-headedness like that of Protein World, the tide is turning. That increased awareness and the use of social media to vocalise our objection to objectification is making it harder and harder for companies to get away with it. That eventually public resistance will mean it is no longer be profitable to sexualise the female body just to sell a bottle of water, and these adverts will be laughed at with naïve incredulity by future generations, just as we laugh at the ludicrously sexist adverts of the 1950s now. But that’s the hope for the future, for now we have to keep resisting, keep shouting back, keep condemning the companies that think this is acceptable. Let them know, women can shout louder than money.




Lets be friends! (Opens in new window)