The Tyranny Of The Perpetually Offended


A single complaint is all it needs to have lingerie advertising pulled – what on earth is that about?

How many complaints should an advertisement receive before we can assume that it has caused serious and widespread offence? It’s a debatable point, but I suspect that most sensible people would not say “just the one” in reply. But one is all that it takes, as we constantly see with Britain’s increasingly prudish and politically correct Advertising Standards Authority (again: not a legal authority), where ads are effectively banned after being seen by thousands, possibly millions, and yet so clearly not been offensive enough for more than a single person to have bothered reporting it.

Under those circumstances, it might be logical to think that the single complainant is not representative of the population – indeed, quite the opposite, that they might be something of a crank, either easily upset by everything or perhaps trying to push a socio-political agenda on the rest of us. Of course, the ASA depend on those cranks for their very existence, and would appear to be excessively populated by similarly lunatic extremists, and so single complaints about ads that practically no one is upset by are upheld as a threat to society. This is the behaviour of the insane.


The latest victim of their wrath is the women’s clothing company Pretty Little Thing, who you might be familiar with because of their constant advertising campaigns selling what looks to be cheap and tatty clothing for urban youth. Not our thing, but who are we to judge? The latest campaign features a serious of shots of women in lingerie, which is understandable, as lingerie is the clothing being advertised. The ASA has some form in deciding that lingerie ads are objectifying women by showing them in sexualised clothing and positions (which some might argue is the best way to sell sexy clothing), and that has been the problem here – in the purse-lipped yet oddly lecherous words of the ASA, the images included a woman “looking over her shoulder in a seductive manner wearing black vinyl, high waisted chaps-style knickers which revealed her buttocks” and “a women in a bikini top, holding the neon bar behind her shoulders  in a highly sexualised pose which accentuated her breasts.” The desperately breathless descriptions bring to mind the story of the censor who banned anything that gave him an erection.

A sensible person might point out that ‘accentuating the breasts’ is hard to avoid when advertising bikini tops, and that if underwear reveals the buttocks, that too will be somewhat inevitable when photographing said underwear. Further, we might wonder what benefit it would be to a company who’s customer base is entirely female to ‘objectify women’ – surely that risks alienating the very people you depend on for a living?


The truth, of course, is that the target audience for Pretty Little Thing clothes are unlikely to be at all offended by the ads or to see the women in them – and so, by proxy, themselves – as being objectified by striking sexually confident poses. But the ASA and the sole complainant know better – no doubt they believe that these women have been browbeaten into a state of false consciousness by the patriarchy.

Perhaps the ASA could enlighten clothing companies as to how to sell underwear without causing widespread offence to individual cranks. Maybe the models need to be too unattractive to sexually arouse the ASA staff. Maybe the clothes will just have to be shown on mannequins rather than actual human beings. Maybe the mannequins will also be too provocative and the clothes will just have to be photographed against a plain background, perhaps with a warning notice that wearing such items will cause men to look at you in an objectifying manner and provide a reading list of feminist literature for women to spend their hard-earned on instead. God forbid that women take control of their own sexuality in a way that their moral superiors disapprove of.



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  1. This isn’t a new problem or one confined to the UK. Back in the 1980s, on Australian TV, Bob Santamaria presented a weekly program on the cause of ills of the world, such as Collingwood not winning the championship. In one episode he criticised a TV commercial, which had a model in a jumper. The voice over said “This jumper costs $19.99”. The model takes of her jumper, and the voice over says “and this shirt cost $8.99”. Repeated three times, with three different women. (Prices may not be accurate.) Santamaria’s complaint? The models were taking the jumpers off over their heads. What he was really complaining about, but he couldn’t possibly mention it, was that when the women took off the jumpers, their breasts moved. Absolutely shocking!

    1. That’s hilarious. But yes, not a new problem. It’s intriguing to see how moral prudes will co-opt current social trends – in this case the objectification of women – to mask their sexual disgust and paranoia.

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