Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a street, maybe in your hometown, maybe in any other big city. What do you notice? Apart from the people around you, you may notice something else striking: billboards, posters, advertising campaigns. Now look at your phone and open Instagram. What pops up after a few scrolls? Ads.
The ubiquitous nature of advertising is undeniable. Yet, paradoxically, we barely seem to notice them. This is precisely what can be coined as the danger of advertising: it seems harmless at first sight – because how could something so “subtle” harm us? -, and after all, doesn’t advertising just help firms compete against each other and inform us, consumers, about our product choices? The problem is that each ad promotes certain ideals and certain identities. And if you look at ads from the last century, and, unfortunately, also at some from the last century, you will find that many of those are -more or less obvious- offensive, racist, homophobic or sexist.
Are Racist Ads Still a Thing?
If you don’t believe me, feel free to google “offensive ads in 2019”, or in any other given year. Take for example Nivea’s “White is Purity” ad from 2017. Not convinced? Try to have a look at numerous examples from the fast-food industry, such as Burger King’s “It’ll blow your mind” campaign that was featuring a woman opening her mouth to a hot dog, or their ad in New Zealand depicting westerners using chopsticks to eat a new Vietnamese-themed burger.
You could also consider this next example which might stand more on the subtle side: Heineken’s “Lighter is Better Ad” in 2018. This particular ad sparked a huge controversy because although it was promoting a beer with less calories, a “lighter” beer, following their ad video, the slogan could easily be interpreted differently. In the video, the bartender passes a beer to a woman he has spotted from afar, and this beer slides past numerous people of colour before reaching a white woman. With this, from a white perspective, many people probably would not have noticed this small but crucial detail.
Ad Regulations – One Size Fits All?
All of these examples and many more show the necessity of advertisement regulations. Just as any other media content, advertisements can further perpetuate stereotypes and drive audience groups apart. It is thus important to hold companies responsible for their campaigns. In 2019, the UK Advertising Standards Authority announced to ban all advertisements which include gender stereotypes and are likely to cause harm or serious offense. A step that seems to go into the right direction. But here’s the issue with such general laws: When does an advertisement become offensive and to whom?
Having started off my argument with many examples supporting advertisement regulations, let’s look at something a bit more difficult to judge. During the past week, Adidas UK launched a Twitter ad featuring a poster promoting its new sports bras. Yet on the poster, there were no sports bras to be seen. Merely women’s bare breasts. The ASA deemed the advertisement offensive because of portraying nudity and it was subsequently banned. Adidas UK reacted by stating that the poster was meant to “reflect and celebrate different shapes and sizes, illustrate diversity and demonstrate why tailored support bras were important”. Are women’s breasts offensive? And if so, to whom? Didn’t Adidas have an honourable intention in celebrating women’s diversity? Would we be offended if we were talking about males in this context?
I am sure there are many different opinions when it comes to this ad, and this serves as an example for showing that an “offensive” ad is much more difficult to define than it seems at first. When are we allowed to restrict someone’s freedom of speech? Banning an ad also means banning the right to freedom of speech. And that, in a democratic society, should not be simple.
To me, whilst reading about the ASA’s decision to ban Adidas’ ad, I felt a little like we were moving back in time. Surely, they could have anticipated that their ad would spark controversy. However, I believe that sometimes, in order to take a stance, you need to make bold statements, just as Adidas has done in this case. Advertisement regulation is important but, in my eyes, the question should be “Is the underlying message of the advertisement offensive?” and not “May someone dislike the photos/videos they are exposed to?”.
This way, it becomes clear that Nivea’s “White is Purity” is offensive and racist, but Adidas celebrating diversity of women – in theory- should not offend anyone.
When it comes to celebrating women, are we only allowed to do so on surface level but get banned if our ideas become bolder?
Maybe, the fact that Adidas’ ad was banned gives support to their initial claim; which is that we need to depict women’s diversity more. Because apparently, what Adidas has done, is still something so unheard of – in a society that claims to be modern – to the point that it had to be deemed inappropriate immediately.