British TV Advertising’s Brief Flirtation With The Female Nipple

1994 saw UK television commercials step forward into the brave new world of European openness – and then quickly step back again.

If you read The Reprobate on a regular basis, you might have an inkling of the sort of thing that piques our interest. Gratuitous nudity? Absolutely. Moral panic? Certainly. Vintage advertising? Without question. How fortunate, then, that all three are brought together in the Neutralia TV commercial of 1994 that became the first – and pretty much the last – ad to appear on British TV that showed a nipple.

The 1990s were a very different time, with the sexual prudishness of the 1980s giving way (temporarily, as recent years have shown us) to a new sense of liberation. 1994 was a year of fetish clubs hitting the mainstream, the new wave of porno chic in America and the rise in female erotica with sex magazines aimed at women becoming briefly mainstream. Existing attitudes towards nudity were starting to look a bit old-fashioned. Into this changing culture came an ad for Garnier’s Neutralia shower gel. Like many ads for multinational companies, it was designed to be shown internationally, with just the voice-over and on-screen text changed, and for most of Europe that wasn’t a problem. In Britain, though, there was the stumbling block that the ad’s shots of a young woman soaping herself in the dermatological miracle foam included two brief flashes of a nipple.

Female nipples were not unusual or sensational on European TV ads, even during the daytime, but such a thing had never been shown in Britain. yet the TV regulators at the time struggled to find a reason why such a shot ought to be banned, especially in the increasingly integrated Europe of 1994 – if it was OK in France and Germany, why not in the UK? The ad was given the go-ahead for broadcast, though with provisions – it could only be shown after 9pm because even non-sexual nudity is still sinful and corrupting to younger viewers, it seems.

Naturally, Garnier saw some publicity potential here – the first TV ad in Britain to show a nipple was going to be big news, especially for the sort of newspapers that claimed a topless woman posing saucily on Page 3 was entirely wholesome but naturalistic nudity anywhere else was somehow going to warp minds and lead to societal collapse. Shock and outrage were duly expressed, alongside frame grabs of the image just to hammer the point home.

The ad duly made it to air. Actually seeing it was a matter of luck – this was long before the days when every ad break consisted of the same commercials again and again, with advertisers competing for the best slots with the two commercial channels that were available to most viewers who didn’t have satellite dishes. Nevertheless, enough people did see it – possibly, like the members of Mary Whitehouse‘s National Viewers and Listeners Association, after setting their VCRs to record entire evenings worth of programming and then fast-forwarding the tapes in search of something to be offended by. Some three hundred people complained about the ad, which was a pretty high number in the days before social media could co-ordinate outrage.

The ad campaign didn’t run for long – I only saw the ad in the wild once and the campaign in any case seemed a fairly intentional brief one. The ad was not, as some have said, banned. Notably though, it did not set a precedent. There has not been a British TV ad showing a female nipple since – while a Coppafeel breast cancer campaign of 2017 was said to feature a brief shot, this was in the theatrical version – the TV commercial was re-edited to remove the shot. Even a campaign to get women to check their breasts couldn’t actually show breasts uncovered. Indeed, while what can be advertised on TV in the UK has expanded considerably – from tampons to condoms, impotence cures to sex toys – it’s hard to imagine any nipple exposure being allowed by the notorious prudish advert censors now when such levels of bare flesh would almost certainly be seen as exploitative and lecherous and either age-restricted or banned by social media platforms.

The British version of the Neutralia ad seems lost in time (certainly lost in our VHS collection) but here is the French edit, identical in content. Smelling salts at the ready…

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