Not-so-perfect Pair: Adidas sports bra ads banned for nudity

May 21, 2022

4 min read

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What's going on here?

Adidas’s adverts for its new sports bras have been banned for showing bare breasts.

What does this mean?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned three of Adidas’s adverts: one tweet and two posters. The tweet and one poster depicted the bare chests of 20 and 62 women, respectively. The other poster was very similar, but pixelated the nipples of the 64 chests displayed. The ads were published in February 2022 to promote Adidas’s sports bras and the range of styles included, seeking to demonstrate they sell a perfect bra for every pair of breasts. However, the ASA found they were all “likely to cause widespread offence” and ordered their removal. A key concern was the ability of children to access and view the posters, exposing them to nudity at a young age.

What's the big picture effect?

The ASA is the regulator of adverts in the UK, with a preference for self-regulation (i.e., telling companies to take their adverts down – as in this case). However, it has legal powers through Ofcom (broadcast items) and Trading Standards (non-broadcast items) which allow it to punish non-compliant advertisers. Its work comes from a mixture of monitoring advertising outputs itself and acting on complaints made by consumers. It received 24 complaints over the Adidas ads, which mainly noted the ad reduced women to their breasts and questioned their appropriateness in a format that children can easily access. It did not find the ads to sexualise women, but agreed they were explicit nudity and recognised that the advertised sports bra range was not actually pictured.

Adidas has said its aims were to “reflect and celebrate different shapes and sizes, illustrate diversity and demonstrate why tailored support bras were important”, with the ads embracing body positivity and encouraging women to feel comfortable in their bodies. Whilst the body positivity movement attracts less news than a decade ago, there has been an uptick in firms embracing natural imagery. ASOS, one of the UK’s largest online-only retailers, stopped photoshopping small ‘imperfections’ on its models in 2017. It has received much praise for displaying models with stretch marks, fat rolls, and facial blemishes. Personal care brand Dove has also run multiple body positivity campaigns. Its ‘Self Esteem Project’ focuses on improving the confidence of young people and involves pledges to “never digitally distort images of women” and to “feature women who represent a broad view of beauty” in their ads. 

However, the ASA’s action is a reminder of the need for advertisers to act responsibly and within appropriate limits whilst promoting acceptance of natural bodies. Numerous ads have been banned recently for sexualising nudity and/or causing offence. In February, Boohoo t-shirt ads were banned for being unnecessarily provocative (you can read our report about that here), and in April, a Re:Nourish ad for vegan soup was banned for being sexually suggestive on a male body, in contrast to Boohoo and Adidas. Advertisers therefore need to be diligent in their use of provocative poses and all nudity. They also need to be mindful of the structure of their advertising.

A key part of the ASA’s decision was the use of ‘untargeted’ adverts. It contends that as the posters were untargeted media, unlike Adidas’ tweet, they were more likely to be seen by children and those who would find it offensive. It consequently recommended Adidas to responsibly target future ads. Targeted ads refers to the use of personal data to identify the ideal consumer – for example, location information and age. This is common on social media sites such as Facebook, which has come under scrutiny in the past for its wide range of targeting options, such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. 

Targeted ads are therefore excellent in ensuring the right consumers see the product, with commercial benefits like increased return on investment and providing more in-depth analytics to build future campaigns. In this case, they are great for facilitating discussions of more controversial topics and images, as they can narrow the audience to exclude those who would be offended. However, targeted ads are not a perfect science and there are social dangers associated with targeting based on other content consumers have interacted with previously, as opposed to just demographic data. The ASA’s ruling suggests that whilst Adidas’s ads were all removed for their nudity, the posters should have been less nude, published online, and targeted. Advertisers hoping to run similar campaigns will need to focus on the clothing product, not show completely nude breasts, and use targeted ads to minimise the chances of children seeing any nudity present. 

The ASA’s ruling is a reminder for companies that whilst embracing natural female bodies can attract new customers, they need to avoid nudity and make sure age-inappropriate topics are kept away from children’s eyes.

Report written by Phoebe Turner

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