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.
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.