How a cheeky but harmless advertising campaign wound up the easily offended.
Advertising is a hit and miss affair, and little is more difficult than trying to promote anything involving the human body without upsetting the sort of people who probably undress with the lights out lest they catch a glimpse of their own naked flesh. So a bus campaign promoting Channel 4’s novelty dating show Naked Attraction was always going to be an interesting challenge. Nevertheless, the hysterical reaction to the campaign from the lunatic fringe – and the fact that these pearl-clutching complaints have been taken seriously – is a sad reflection on how hung up we remain as a culture when it comes to nudity.
Naked Attraction, for those unfamiliar with it, is a late-night twist on the Dating Game concept, where a contestant picks from a selection of would-be dates who are all naked. Based entirely around physical attraction, the naked people are first shown from the waist down, then the neck down and only finally with face and voice revealed – by which time a few of them will have been rejected based on the appeal of their genitalia and chests. If this sounds like a ruthlessly unpleasant beauty contest, you should know that the show is determinedly body-positive – the contestants are literally all shapes, sizes, sexualities and genders, and everyone is jolly inclusive in their tastes – clearly, no one on the show is going to reject anyone for being fat, skinny, trans or disabled. It is, perhaps, a touch contrived – but also, you have to admire the show’s determination to present all sorts of bodies as being sexually attractive, and for de-sensationalising nudity in a nation where a large number of people still seem utterly terrified of the naked body. The nudity on this show is so matter-of-fact that, even though it is ultimately about sexual attraction, it defies you to find anything vaguely erotic about the whole thing.
The new advertising campaign for the show – a curious thing in itself given how long it has been on air – is a harmlessly cheeky affair that – as the above photo shows – essentially ‘captions’ passengers – one as loving the show, another as hating it and – here’s where it becomes problematic – as someone who ‘loves being naked’. Now, you might think that loving being naked is fine and dandy – as accusations go, it seems a lot less outrageous than many I could think of. Nevertheless, it was enough to raise the ire of a single Twitter complainant, and in these days of hyper-sensitivity, that’s all it takes.
Tracy King, who The Times helpfully tells us (because I’m fairly sure you wouldn’t have heard of her before this helpful publicity boost) is a 45-year-old writer and comedian, tweeted “What the hell is this creepy bus ad? You can’t just label non-consenting passengers like that. Does Channel 4 not know how many sexual assaults take place on buses? Passengers shouldn’t have to navigate, ‘Am I the butt of a joke on my way to work today’.”
It seems quite a leap to go from someone being captioned as liking to be naked to sexual assault – even if we put aside the odd idea of immediately equating nudity with sexual availability and promiscuity as King seems to be doing, quite how this ad endangers anyone is hard to fathom – are we to believe that men will spot a woman sat in the seat from across the road, believe that the caption is specifically referring to her, assume that her love of being naked means that she is sexually promiscuous and give chase as the bus drives off? It feels a bit of a stretch. And frankly, being the butt of a joke that you are blissfully unaware of and will never know about or be affected by in any way doesn’t seem a terrible thing. There seems a lot of projection and personal moral uptightness at work here.
While the issue of sexual assault on public transport is a serious one, this seems to be about rather more basic fears – the same fears that drive objections to private naturist events at public swimming baths or sees breastfeeding images removed from Instagram – a Biblical belief in the inherent sinfulness of the naked body that cannot conceive of any non-sexual context for being naked. And in truth, it’s not even about nudity – any sort of revealing or provocative clothing that makes the observer feel uncomfortable or aroused is also condemned. The Times report attempts to compare the ad with the banned ‘Beach Body Ready‘ ads that were pulled from the London tube for ‘body shaming’, and in truth, there’s certainly a connection – but not the one they are trying to make. Both ads are objected to by people who think that the human body is a shameful and private thing, regardless of size or shape. For all the complaints about the Beach Body ads promoting unattainable ideas of beauty, the truth seemed obvious – some people just felt very uncomfortable about being confronted by a woman in a bikini and a slogan that specifically called attention to her body and posited it as being ‘desirable’ (not in a sexual way, but still…). We’ve seen similar complaints about lingerie ads and fashion promotions – posters that cause a certain type of viewer to feel morally affronted must be objected to; the fact that current complaints are dressed up with modern buzzwords about positive body images fools no one.
The same is true about the Naked Attraction show, and the fact that the ad is for that show is probably what has really riled up the morally uptight into foaming fury. Certainly, most of the outraged complaints following the newspaper reports are about the show itself rather than the actual advertisement, revealing what really upsets people is that idea of nudity on TV. People like ‘Helena’ in the Times comments, who spluttered:
“Personally l cannot understand how a society which claims to care about children tolerates this programme on mainstream TV where it can be readily be accessed by them. It is a form of indirect child abuse. I had always thought that indecent exposure in a public arena was a crime.”
Beyond a general misunderstanding of the law (non-sexual public nudity is not, per se, illegal unless you intend to upset or offend others), this leap of imagination – that a late-night, body-positive show for an adult audience somehow becomes ‘child abuse’ – is staggeringly depressing.
Equally depressing is the fact that, rather than telling the critics of the ad where to go, Channel 4 grovellingly apologised and London Transport said “we are urgently reassessing whether these adverts should continue to run” – and quickly decided that they shouldn’t. Such pathetic grovelling to outraged cranks is shameful – you can’t imagine this happening if a racist had objected to mixed-race couples in an ad, but when it comes to nudity, the lunatic fringe and their eccentric, evidence-free ideas are kowtowed to, because no one dares to ignore their hysterical and evidence-free complaints and treat them as the mean-spirited moralisers that they are. So both London Transport and Channel 4 have publicly bought into the idea that nudity is something sinful and salacious – what a message to send out.
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