Social responsibility: body image

May 5th '22

All marketing communications should be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society. Advertisers should ensure that they don’t portray particular body types in an irresponsible manner or present an unhealthy body image as aspirational, exploit people’s insecurities about their body image, or suggest that happiness or wellbeing depends on conforming to a particular physical appearance, or gender stereotypical body type or physical features.


  • Don’t promote an unhealthy body image

Advertisers must ensure that models are not depicted in a way which makes them appear underweight or unhealthy, as this could be considered irresponsible for promoting an unhealthy body image.


Using slim models is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) does not comment on the models themselves or suggest that they, or people of similar proportions are unhealthy, instead the ASA will consider is how the models are presented in ads and what effects this could have on the audience.


The ASA has upheld complaints about ads on the grounds that the models in the ad were made to look unhealthily thin, through the use of lighting, make up, a choice of clothing, and pose.


An ad for Yves Saint Laurent, which featured an image of a model lying on the floor with her hands on her head, was considered socially irresponsible for depicting a model who appeared to be unhealthily thin in the ad. This was because the use of lighting in the ad drew attention to her chest, made her ribcage appear prominent, and drew attention to her legs, where the large platform shoes she was wearing created a contrast with her thighs in a way which made them look unhealthily thin (Yves Saint Laurent SAS, 15 June 2015).


A magazine ad was also considered problematic, due to the angle of the photo, and the model’s pose, which both gave the impression that the model was unhealthily thin (Condé Nast Publications Ltd, 08 November 2017).


Whilst the ASA does uphold ads which depict models in a way which makes them appear unhealthily thin, the use of thin models itself is not automatically considered socially irresponsible. Another ad for Yves Saint Laurent was not upheld because, whilst the model in the ad was wearing a short dress which revealed very long and slim legs, her legs appeared to be in proportion with her body and did not appear to be unhealthily thin (Yves Saint Laurent SAS 07 May 2014).


  • Think about targeting

Marketers should ensure that ads do not irresponsibly exploit the insecurities of children, young people and vulnerable groups.


In a ruling on a group of ads for swim and summer wear targeted at young people, the ASA ruled that the ads, which they felt depicted images of a model in a way which made her appear unhealthily thin, were likely to impress upon their audience that the images were representative of the people who might wear the advertiser’s clothing, and that this was something to aspire to. In this ad the ASA felt that the heavy make-up around the model’s eyes, along with her stretched out pose and lighting that made her hip, rib, collar, and thigh bones very prominent, all contributed to the appearance of the model as being unhealthily thin (Drop Dead Clothing Ltd, 09 November 2011).


The ASA has upheld complaints about multiple ads for breast surgery on the grounds that they irresponsibly targeted young people, or vulnerable groups, and exploited consumer’s insecurities. The ASA has considered multiple ads for breast augmentation to be irresponsible for taking advantage of young people’s insecurities by focusing on young women’s negative feelings and perceptions about their bodies prior to surgery, and suggesting that they were unable to wear certain clothes or feel confident in public (MYA Cosmetic Surgery Ltd, 19 April 2017 and TFHC Ltd t/a Transform, 6 July 2016). The ASA has also considered other vulnerable groups, and in 2018, upheld a complaint about a Transform TV ad because the ad was seen to exploit the insecurities of new mothers, by focusing on a new mothers negative perceptions of her own body before undergoing surgery (TFHC t/a Transform, 3 January 2018).


  • Don’t exploit insecurities or create pressure to conform

Ads must not suggest that happiness or wellbeing depends on conforming to a particular body shape or physical appearance.


Ads must not exploit consumers’ insecurities or encourage consumers to focus on concerns about their bodies as a reason for having cosmetic surgery. The ASA upheld complaints about a Facebook post for a cosmetic surgery clinic which featured before and after photos of a woman who had had breast augmentation surgery alongside text which stated, “Check out this amazing before and after breast surgery. These breasts now look perkier, fuller and younger!”. The ASA considered that the ad would be understood by consumers to be promoting a body image that was youthful and focused on reversing the natural ageing process, and was therefore irresponsible for exploiting insecurities about this natural ageing process to sell cosmetic surgery (Linia Cosmetic Surgery, 4 May 2022).


Similarly, in 2018 the ASA received multiple complaints about an ad for breast enlargement surgery on the grounds that the ad exploited young women’s insecurities about their bodies, trivialised breast enhancement surgery and portrayed it as aspirational. Whilst presenting the lifestyle of women who have had cosmetic surgery in a positive light is not necessarily problematic, in this case, the ASA considered that this went further and instead implied that the women were only able to enjoy the aspirational lifestyle shown, and to be happy with their bodies, because they had undergone that surgery. They also considered that the focus on the aspirational lifestyle and the tone of the ad, in combination with the statement “join them and thousands more” – which suggested that it was common to undergo breast enlargement and acted as an explicit call to action – had the effect of trivialising the decision to undergo that surgery (MYA Cosmetic Surgery Ltd, 17 October 2018).


  • Don’t create pressure to conform to an idealised gender stereotypical body shape or physical features 

On 14 December 2018, CAP announced the introduction of a new rule on gender stereotyping in ads, and on 14 June 2019. This rule states that ads ‘must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’.  This followed a review of gender stereotyping in ads by the ASA is also supported by additional guidance on potentially harmful gender stereotypes.


The guidance which accompanies the rule states that, whilst it is acceptable for ads to feature glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people, ads should not suggest that an individual’s happiness or emotional wellbeing depends on them conforming to an idealised gender stereotypical body shape or physical features.


For example, an ad that depicts a person who was unhappy with multiple aspects of their life, then implies that all their problems were solved by changing their body shape alone to conform to gender-stereotypical norms, without addressing other aspects of their life, is likely to be considered problematic.


  • Cosmetic interventions

Following a public consultation in 2020, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) are introducing new targeting restrictions that prohibit cosmetic interventions advertising from being directed at under-18s.


The new targeting restrictions will come into effect on 25 May 2022 and essentially require that:


  • Ads for cosmetic interventions must not appear in non-broadcast media directed at under-18s;
  • Ads for cosmetic interventions must not appear in other non-broadcast media where under-18s make up over 25% of the audience; and
  • Broadcast ads for cosmetic interventions must not appear during or adjacent to programmes commissioned for, principally directed at or likely to appeal particularly to under-18s.


For more information about this, please see the CAP statement about these restrictions, and the CAP Guidance on the marketing of surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures.


See also Cosmetic Interventions: Social Responsibility.


Source: CAP


Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA. CAP’s AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.


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