Sob Story: The ASA’s Puritanical Fear Of The Female Body

The self-declared advertising authority uses modern buzzwords to disguise the decidedly Victorian morality behind its decisions.

Once again, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority – the self-appointed, legally impotent advertising censorship board – has revealed its innate fear of female sexuality and the human body with a ruling against the awful fast-fashion retailer Boohoo. Now, there are many, many reasons to hate Boohoo – their business practices are notoriously dubious and their clothing is hideous. This is, we should say, in no way a defence of the company or what it does. But really – this latest ASA judgement is so deliriously stupid – even by their own appalling standards – that it is hard not to comment.

The ‘ad’ in question appeared on the Boohoo site and, if we look carefully, we might see that it is actually a product listing rather than an advertisement as such. There is, you might think, a bit of a difference between the two. Clearly, the images that the ASA took exception to were designed to show off and sell a product. The photos were not appearing outside the company’s website and so we might ask if they even count as advertising in any real way? But that aside, let’s look at what the ASA objected to, shall we?

“In one of the images, the model was shown from the rear in a kneeling position and we noted that the t-shirt was folded under so that the bikini bottoms and the model’s buttocks and naked legs were visible and prominent,” they said. Oh my God, not naked legs! How outrageous. They continue:

“We considered that the image emphasised the model’s buttocks and legs rather than the product and that she was posed in a sexually suggestive way from behind, with her hand appearing to be tucked into the bikini bottoms at the front.” They also complain about another photo where the model is lifting the shirt to reveal – steady yourselves – her stomach.

Thus, the ad was banned for the offence of objectifying women, even though it was clearly aimed at women. It seems to me that few companies will set out to offend their customers and so the chances that Boohoo was attempting to objectify (or ‘sexualise’, to use the old-fashioned term for the same offence) women seems unlikely. And unless you actually do believe that images of a woman’s legs, torso and the sides of her buttocks are inherently indecent – and I suspect the ASA do – then it’s rather hard to see how this is at all sexually suggestive to anyone but the most obsessively prudish. I mean, it’s just about possible that someone, somewhere might crank one out to these not-especially good photos while at the same time thinking of the model as just a piece of meat – but it feels like a stretch.

We might also note a bit of a double standard at the ASA. They never condemn ads for objectifying men – presumably because in the ASA world, men can never be objectified and even if they were, wouldn’t be harmed by it. Women, though, are clearly more delicate creatures and so need the patriarchal protection of the censors. It’s a classic moralising trick – claim to be fighting for equality while reducing women to the status of powerless victims.

The biggest nonsense here is the claim that the ‘ad’ was “likely to cause serious offence” – and that’s not even a subjective opinion. Boohoo is an inexplicably popular brand and is viewed by hundreds of thousands of people a day. How many of them complained? One. By any definition, one complaint does not equal ‘serious offence’. But as we know, not all complainants are equal: the ASA will uphold or dismiss complaints based on their own opinions rather than how many people are actually offended. Like all censors, they think that they know best and push their own agendas rather than the actual public opinion that they claim to reflect.

Boohoo, of course, have needlessly capitulated in the way that most advertisers do and so have given the ASA more power. They really should tell them where to stick their pointless and puritanical judgement and listen to what their actual customers say. Because if the offence really is widespread and serious, they’ll soon find out when their customers simply stop buying.


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