We talked with an official at the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK about how they determine whether an ad could cause offense or harm, and what happens when they try to stop it from getting printed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
A dimly lit black and white shot of a woman made news earlier this week, her long and skinny legs stretched across a floor, ending in a pair of platform shoes. The picture, part of a campaign for the fashion house Saint Laurent, was banned from the UK media by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for depicting its model as "unhealthily underweight," especially her visible rib cage, and her thighs and calves, which "appeared a similar width."
The ad has once again sparked debate over the portrayal of body image in the fashion media, so we spoke to Matt Wilson of the ASA about the ruling, and about the thinking behind labeling images as dangerous.
VICE: This ruling is getting a lot of attention, oddly enough bringing a lot of eyes back to the image itself...
Matt Wilson: It's interesting, in that this ruling was a high-profile one. We're talking about an international fashion house, and more importantly about body confidence and the impact an image can have on women. It's about how ads can use images in irresponsible ways. It's also important to note that we're not here to regulate models—we're regulating the way that people are depicted.
How is it decided whether an image is irresponsible?
There aren't prescriptive guidelines for every type of creative approach an ad can take. They're more overarching, so it's always a challenge. We have to be clear that we make a subjective judgement, but a rounded one. We take into account the context of the ad and who is likely to see it, whether we've received complaints, and whether an image crosses the line in terms of prevailing social standards. In this case, it wasn't about saying that the model (18-year-old Dutch model Kiki Willems) is unhealthily thin, but that the way she was posed, the styling, and the lighting were used in a way that made her look unhealthily thin.
How did the ad come to your attention? Did you see ELLE before it was printed?
We're predominantly complaints led, so we received a complaint from a member of the public after it was in the public domain. But we also do proactive sweeps across different media. We don't have the power to recall a magazine, but we put it on the public record when an ad has fallen foul of the rules. It sets a precedent for the advertiser—the ad won't be printed again and they'll know where we stand in future.
How is it decided if an image is dangerous?
When we receive a complaint, it goes to our complaints team and they assess whether or not there's grounds for investigation. Then they'll speak to the advertisers—you have to give them the chance to defend the ad. Then, when all the arguments have been looked at, it's put to the ASA Council and they decide if the ad has to be changed or withdrawn.
On the one hand it's a really powerful story and has got a dialogue going. But, on the other, you're investing a lot of power in just one image, when this is part of a much wider social issue.
It is a complicated topic, and a really sensitive and important one. We monitor the ads people see, but there's still the ongoing drip-feed within society of accepted, Western ideas of beauty. These are debates the ASA can't afford to get involved in. That said, the media coverage that's resulted from this ruling has been important: a lot of people supported our decision, and it got people talking. That's one of the impacts of a strong ASA ruling.
Even if, in the end, more people end up seeing the image in question?
We always say it's useful if the image is shown and given context—it's within the public interest to know specifically what we had a problem with and why.
Did the ASA consider the online petition against Saint Laurent using "seemingly malnourished models" in making the ruling?
No, we didn't. We can't be held hostage by complaint figures, otherwise people could just coordinate lots of complaints en masse, or a competitor could launch them. It's a factor that we take into account, but ultimately it's about whether they've broken the UK advertising codes.
Do you ban ads often?
On Wednesday when we published the Saint Laurent ruling there were about seven other rulings published with it, which didn't get the same level of publicity. We regularly publish around seven to 20 different rulings every week.
What do people complain about the most?
Misleading advertising. We received 30,000 complaints last year and around 80 percent of those were about ads being misleading. But we've found that body issues, as a concern, are really gaining momentum, and we have to account for that in the decisions we make.
Fashion gets away with a lot more than, say, food advertising, because it's always been the way it is... Are you finding that fashion is becoming more answerable to people thanks to social media?
It's a tricky one, and it goes way beyond what we do as a regulator. We know fashion as something edgy and irreverent, which uses a lot of provocative images. And there's nothing wrong with that. The fashion industry is one of those sectors where by its very nature is going to stimulate debate. But we will get involved when they cross our lines and are likely to cause offense or harm.
Do you work with psychologists or eating disorder associations to judge if an image is likely to trigger people?
We take our cues from the advertising codes, which set out the catch-all principle that ads should be socially responsible. There's no formal guidance from anyone in making our decisions. We have a 50-year history of making decisions ourselves. Sometimes we'll engage with groups and, if they have concerns, we'll always take them very seriously. But we don't, on a case-by-case basis, liaise with them.
Do brands ever answer back?
They do. This is quite a brief response from the advertiser (the director of public affairs at Ispa, representing Saint Laurent, commented that "some people are naturally thin, some of us are sadly not"), but sometimes we get very detailed replies. It's a platform for the advertiser to defend themselves, but in this case they just said that they don't agree.
Have you ever pulled an ad because someone was overweight?
Off the top of my head, no. I don't think it's something we ever get complaints about. But you never know, that may change in time.
Lastly, out of curiosity, how did the controversy around the Protein World ads play out at the ASA office?
We had over 300 complaints about Protein World. Funnily enough, by the time we received them, we'd already scheduled a meeting with the company, because we had concerns about weight loss claims they were making about their product. Then, in the interim, we received all the complaints about it being offensive, too. We're still formally investigating them, but as it stands, we've already decided the ad can't run again.
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