Marketing

Complaints over “pornographic” bouncing breast Berlei ad dismissed: Lessons in using nudity in marketing

Emma Koehn /

Advertising experts have weighed in on what brands need to know about using partially-clothed talent in campaigns after the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) dismissed complaints about Berlei’s “Womankind” bra ad, despite Facebook and Instagram taking issue with the same content.

The free-to-air version of the Berlei campaign garnered a range of complaints to the ASB last month, with worried viewers calling on the board to ban the ad due to its “inappropriate” and “degrading” imagery.

The ad shows several women struggling with poorly fitting bras, with the promotion claiming Berlei’s new line will solve these problems.

However, complaints expressed concerns the campaign encouraged children to look up “boobs” on the internet and that the images were “offensive and sexual” given the early evening timeslot.

“My eight year old son after the commercial started to tell me that boons [sic] are sexy and he went to google boobs on the computer,” one complainant wrote.

Last month Facebook and Instagram blocked the digital formats of the “Womankind” campaign given their advertising policies restrict the focus on specific body parts.

Other complaints objected to the campaign on the basis that children who saw it would be tempted to ask adults around them about why there were so many “bouncing breasts”.

In response to the complaints, Berlei owner Hanes Australia, formerly Pacific Brands, said it had considered concerns over the levels of nudity in the ad and reflected that the breasts included were always covered by a bra, and nipples censored when the full breast was seen.

The company challenged the idea that it was portraying breasts in a sexualised way.

“Importantly none of the shots of breasts used in the advertisement are glamourised or sexualised in any way, in fact they are depicted in an unglamorous and harsh light in order to highlight the discomfort associated with fitting breasts into an illfitting bra,” it said in response. 

The ASB considered whether the complaints breached section 2 of the advertising code of ethics, which relates to employing sexual appeal in advertising in a manner which is degrading.

It found that while the campaign focused almost exclusively on women’s breasts, this was done to show concerns over ill-fitting underwear and not to “employ sex appeal”.

It considered that women featured were shown in a “realistic light” and that many women would understand the struggles portrayed in the ad. The board dismissed the complaints.

berlei ad

An image from the Berlei ad.

The internet, outrage and framing

The case decision was made despite distributors of the campaign on Facebook and Instagram raising concerns about the content within the campaign.

Advertising expert at the University of Melbourne Lauren Rosewarne says this is a reminder to brands that they are operating in an “outrage culture”.

The internet can enable the distribution of messages, but it can also limit these, and can even feed backlash around ads that include body parts or material that customers feel is risque.

“While the technology helps a company to cheaply market to a broad audience, there will undoubtedly be a couple of people in that broad audience who will be offended by an ad. That same technology will be used to broadcast a complaint and to encourage further dissent,” she says.

Then there’s the reality that the ASB and social media companies won’t always see eye to eye on content, so brands need to prepare for these differences in opinion.

“With online advertising, while the ASB is one source of redress for complainants, so too is the social media sites they appear on,” she says.

Gender-intelligence consultant Bec Brideson says she believes Facebook got it right with its reservations about the Berlei campaign, believing it is heavy-handed and gratuitous.

“I would have been more interested in seeing the expression on women’s faces telling the truth of discomfort,” she says.

However, Brideson says social media platforms don’t always get things right, and businesses should know that sometimes “blanket rules” can result in distributors jumping the gun on blocking campaigns.

“Female-lensed perspectives” and lessons for brands

Brideson says a lot of advertising in this space can still be caught in a state of the “dinosaur age”, where brands don’t have diverse creative teams and can end up creating content that doesn’t match community expectations.

She says “merely hiring females” to work on your campaigns, particularly when advertising products like bras, doesn’t automatically mean you are creating messaging that won’t be problematic.

Brideson believes brands should think when they actually need to use nudity in their campaigns and when this is inappropriate.

“Sometimes nudity is legitimately part of the storytelling, sometimes it’s gratuitous. Knowing the line takes commitment to understanding gender nuances,” she says.

SmartCompany has contacted Berlei for further comment on the case decision but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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  • narrismo

    The Old White Man Bureau says another ad isn’t sexist? Surprise surprise.

    Showing a montage of boobs is a lose-lose.
    – you aren’t connecting it to your consumer’s identity;
    – It comes across as gratuitous.

    The ASB needs to have people on the board that do connect with community standards.

    “Outrage culture” the wrong way to frame modern discourse. The issue primarily is that the globalisation of human connection has enabled people to better connect with those who share their world views, and/or niches. This has legitimised views that would broadly be socially unacceptable as people can congregate anonymously and engage in harmful echo chambers. It has lead to the rise of Trump. The current platforms are leading to a culture of division and anger with no real forum for constructive discourse among people who broadly agree, and of which highlights differences rather than harmony. It’s a huge weakness which the Russians used in meddling in the 2016 US election.

    There have always been counter-cultures and community organisations voicing concerns on issue. The internet has just lead to them having better platforms to organise.

    Technology has reduced attention spans and advertising executives who are at a loss to know what will keep eyeballs continue to resort to old cliches. Those at the top justify such decisions as that’s how it’s “always been done”.

    • Rohan Baker

      I’m impressed. It’s not often you have a nice causality linking the alleged and still unproven Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections to an ABS decision about a Berlie bra ad.

      Trump: His presidency is causing unintended consequences everywhere. #MAGA

      • narrismo

        You and your Russian puppet are causing problems everywhere, Mr MAGA.

  • Michael

    Always good to do the math. How many people watched it and how many felt drawn to complain. How many of those were women who identified with the problem. They aren’t selling penis enlargement…..

    Just because you take offense doesn’t make you right.

    The vocal outraged minority are only outraged by things that affront them personally. One might call that self interest. Society as a whole should not be held ransom by them. Surely we should always err on paying attention to what most of us feel.

  • Michael

    Always good to do the math. How many people watched it and how many felt drawn to complain. How many of those were women who identified with the problem. They aren’t selling penis enlargement…..

    Just because you take offense doesn’t make you right.

    The vocal outraged minority are only outraged by things that affront them personally. One might call that self interest. Society as a whole should not be held ransom by them. Surely we should always err on paying attention to what most of us feel.

    • narrismo

      They’re a “vocal minority” because you don’t agree with it.

      • Michael

        If the ones shouting the loudest are the minority of people, by definition I would say that they are the ‘vocal minority’……..

  • Bruce Finch

    Hahahahahahhahahah – boobs – hahahhahahahahhahah – oh, wait – that’s showing that’s it’s actually quite tough having boobs – I wouldn’t know, but I believe it – “womenkind” – kind to women – that sounds good, I support this initiative
    Footnote – re: the tiresome ‘gratuitous’ boob montage gripe – gracious… the objective, surely, is to get across that we [Berlei] [&, who knows, maybe us regular punters] understand that while boobs are neat to look at, owning them can be a pain in the neck – the series of shots isn’t about titillation but the quotidian challenges of having tits – having a scrotum is bad enough, but if I had boobs, I’d be glad that there are companies finding ways to make living with them easier