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An open letter to adverts

Or to be more specific, a letter to the Codes of Advertising Practice, which informs the UK Advertising Standards Authority, on why they are not doing their job. Their purpose: “Making every UK ad, a responsible ad.” It’s a worthy and stand-up purpose. They’re not achieving it though.

On the ASA’s website, of the 2017 Ten Most Complained About Adverts, two weren’t investigated and eight weren’t upheld. The same reasoning repeatedly being used that the advert: “would not cause serious or widespread offence”. That’s not the same as “making every UK ad responsible” though, so which purpose are they working to? “Responsible” surely means ethical not inoffensive.

It isn’t possible for me to take the recommended route of making a complaint to the ASA, the complaint would be about most ads, most of the time. Misleading (Postcode Lottery), unrealistic imagery (most make-up ads, video games) claims (“healthy” food ads), inventing problems (the ‘blandwich’, ‘nose-blind’) unethically coaxing us to use finance (Ocean), gambling, ads with elitist messages (The Undisputed King of Trainers – which I dispute!) and the on-going issue, my personal bug-bear, the oppressive use of just thin models. In one of the articles found on the ASA website entitled: Social Responsibility: Body Image, they claim that “the use of thin models itself is not automatically considered socially irresponsible.” Here is where, as gently as I possibly can, I need to point out, yes… it is.

The stark facts are: 81% of ten year olds are now worried about being fat; anorexia accounts for more deaths than any other mental illness, eating disorders cost the economy £16.8bn per year, including £4.6bn to the NHS and millions of people feel inadequate, dissatisfied and preoccupied with the way they look. Either way, by the ASA’s own definition, you could argue that the exhaustive use of thin models is “causing serious and widespread…” hang on, not offence; actual harm (Is it ok as long as we’re not offending anyone? Harming impressionable young people is ok?) France joins Israel, Italy and Spain to implement laws protecting models from becoming dangerously underweight. I argue that we should at the very least be following suit and supporting Rosie Nelson, a model whose petition is doing great work to achieve the UK equivalent. For me though, this isn’t enough. Having a minimum BMI for models, will only result in more just thin models.

Although all of this makes ethical sense, some pockets of society (especially those who profit from it) don’t like the idea of change. Some industry figure-heads are spitting their dummies out at these overseas rulings, resisting them in a range of professional toddler tantrums. I imagine boardrooms of fashion and beauty moguls, spread-eagled, kicking the floor screaming “But it won’t work”, “Are you mad? Sample sizes only come in one size”, “Models will lose their jobs”, “Airbrushing has been done since the dinosaurs”, “Don’t take my perfect world away from me!” The impossibility of it all! Robbie Myers, Editor in Chief of US Elle adds: ‘A law to “protect” a population of what… 400 runway models? But it’s OK to be a seriously underweight civil service worker?’ I’m sorry I’m still laughing, he’s such a douche! Clever distraction trick there from Robbie, but no, it’s to protect everyone from damaging and for the most part, unattainable ideals that are in some cases wrecking people’s lives (eating disorders, self-harm, suicide) and in many cases just wasting a lot of people’s time and energy feeling naff. The body of a civil service worker has no influence over tribes of young girls and Robbie’s apparent ignorance of that power is pretty disingenuous. Just googled Robbie Myers – it’s a woman! A very skinny woman. For a moment I’m left aghast, truly. What does this mean? Not the curse of the patriarchy, selling us something we don’t need through insecurity. Something different… I think it’s just that some folks have laboured under, bought so heavily into, the illusion of thin-is-best for so long – their whole lives, comfort and even careers based on it – that to imagine the shift, is melting their brains.

Come on ASA… DO something! Only you can.

I believe we’re looking at it from the wrong angle. The aim shouldn’t be to ostracise thin models, but include over-weight models. Yes over-weight models, and a range of gorgeous people who reflect actual society not some invented super-race that exists in the world of advertising, getting ever more glowy, that soon we won’t be able to see them at all, they’ll dazzle us so much, we will be blind.

There’s a vendetta out on photoshopping too. I’d argue people are not hung up on photoshopping, but hung up on the unreal representation of the body. Photoshopping for artistic impact has a place in advertising, and if that were a place where all sizes were justified, photoshopping wouldn’t feel compelled to shave the arses off these poor unsuspecting folk!

So can we take away the airbrushing spat, it’s a distraction, and start ‘modelling’ a real cross-section of society so people can see themselves and feel validated in their own skin.

Yes a new system would require work, it would require fashion houses making a range of sample sizes, it would put some thin models out of work in the name of equality and social responsibility, marketing offices would have to think outside the box and repackage their messages, minds would need to shift and rules would too, so that finally we can email the Advertising Standards Authority and announce ‘I say! There’s too much slim and not enough reality going on in this in this corporate message, for it to be truly healthy and responsible’ and they would… uphold it.

Brain-washing – or what is academically called “affective conditioning” – has bothered me since I was a teenager. I have worked for fifteen years as a body therapist, with people and their bodies all day, most days. And rare is the person who feels good in their skin. Old, young, male, female, fat, thin. This reflects inadequacy on a social level – widespread discontent. Who knows how that impacts on our well-being, mental health, our sense (or lack thereof) of self-approval, on our potential, decision-making and ability to feel good. More recently through my body image speaking engagements, I find women in power, figure-heads, intelligent, accomplished women, who still feel utterly at a loss when it comes to their bodies.

Two recent body image documentaries echo my findings and both talk about the media’s roles in our body perceptions. About how even the skinniest among us feel insecure because an impossible standard has been set. The current media body ideal is achievable by only 5% of the population and 90% of us feel physically inadequate.

The Illusionists points out that advertising wasn’t always like this. Two men in the 1920’s and 30’s, are to blame. Edward Bernays and Ernst Dickter invented advertising spin and felt no remorse about heightening society’s insecurities. Before that adverts were like… “Here’s a thing you might like”, or “Here’s a thing that you might find useful, thank you and goodnight”.

Being reminded of our short-comings though ads, is so natural and commonplace now, I’d hazard we mostly don’t even notice. Most of us won’t remember ads before the 1930’s so it’s our norm, and entrenched not just in society but naturally also in the ASA and the codes that inform it. It’s harmful but tolerated, like bees buzzing past on a summer’s day… if those bees were obnoxiously saying: ‘You’re rubbish, you need me, you need me.’

In the name of not misleading you I feel I need to point out that bees aren’t actually antiquated corporate ninnies. Many advertisers don’t mind misleading you. Their concern is selling warehouses full of junk. Bees just sting, then die, so… not the same.

That changes things a bit doesn’t it, knowing that it wasn’t always like this.  Advertising didn’t always rely on you feeling that you  just aren’t up to par, not good enough. Hey other human! You suck. Pull your socks up, raise your game, eat some salad! Spray some smell but for God’s sake get thin! I wonder how this thin culture also impacts on the #metoo and #timesup campaigns when society’s object of desire is so often depicted in a mould best achieved by a teenage girl… Surprise, surprise, perhaps this is not what society needs.

In the words of Melinda Tankard Reist in another body image documentary, Embrace, “Why should the vested interests of advertisers come before the well-being of children and young people?” I totally agree. If an advert is manipulative, it should not get to just trickle like treacle into my senses or those of my kids. I’m so tired of reality checking ads with my kids, dealing with their disappointment and having to work hard all the time to remember not to feel inadequate.

Did you know we see between 400 and 500 adverts a day? And we’re sitting ducks with regards ads. It’s a bit like second-hand smoke – we haven’t asked for them to filter into our brains, Is that OK Britain? That we basically have to put up with Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters twittering in our ears day in day out.  Could it be possible that they need more of a social responsibility directive? Can I have a say as I don’t get a choice?

I believe yes, consumers should have protection from constant, harmful messages. Businesses need to invest in a supportive, compassionate, equality narrative and that is definitely not what we have got.  Talking to Robin from Credos, the UK advertising’s think tank, he assures me the only way things will change, is through consumer pressure. Which we can do with gumption, petition and law-change? We have to tell them what we want! Maybe a shopping strike (I shall pop that on the ‘to-do’ list). Or favouring shops that across the board have equality in their model’s body shapes – Oh but such places don’t exist beyond PR stunts.

In these times brands need to shout out loud to be heard, to make you feel an emotion, create a lasting impression, more now than ever. And thankfully there are some really heart-warming messages are starting to trickle through that big-up reality, but this new ground is shakey and uncertain. Take for example match.com’s Love your Imperfections campaign, the ethos behind it was inclusive and real and I felt good watching it. Not everyone did though and the ad was criticised for implying that having freckles was an imperfection. I’m sure advertisers (and the ASA for that matter) feel as though they’re in a vortex of not knowing which way to step. But can you see the irony of the social problem? Society has been programmed to perfection. So that if they see themselves in an “imperfect” (real – we’re all beautifully imperfect) way, they flippin’ freak out and well-meaning ads are pulled. The imperfection should have been upheld.

Dove are bringing supportive messages with their Beauty On Your Own Terms campaign and M&S’s Spend it Well and This Girl Can messages sort of hit the positive tone, or it would if their branding and website contained diverse models to back it up. Contemporary standards are starting to shift at a societal level and can hopefully pave the way for other brands to catch on and follow.

More heartening news, Instagram has banned the hashtags #thighgap #anorexia #eatingdisorder and more, and account holders are boldly being real, positive and proud of their bodies which is a breath of fresh air, a counter-cure to the nonsense. To some, I must sound somewhat hysterical on this subject. But I am absolutely confident that change is beyond due.

The recent viral hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers and active conversations about body positivity that are emerging online and at events around the country, are all heartening signs that the tipping point is close. The time is ripe for this and this and the UK could be a world leader in social consciousness.  I want to see all the best things that are real about us and our society. I want to be inspired instead of feeling ashamed and inadequate.

For twenty five years now, I’ve been waiting for the media to grow a brain and sort this out, but I fear they won’t alone. I see a future where all bodies are valid and valued. Because in real life, they are! Aren’t they! When I think of my circle of friends they are such a gorgeous range of diverse lovelies and not for one minute would I think any of them are better or worse based on their bodies – but they do.  The idea that some bodies are inferior to others is utter nonsense… and pretty judgey! BTW research is now emerging that the idea of being thin equals healthy is a bunch of old tosh and again, in reality I see that too. Also BTW, I’m a young, slim cancer-survivor and our demographic is typically not overweight.

I understand this is an enormous task because this is how adverts have come to work their “magic”, relying on our insecurities. (Please do watch the documentaries if you have any doubt over this or would like to argue the point on twitter.) If we’d been asked, at the beginning of adverts, “…and what kind of body shapes should we use in these… advertisements?”  the decision would largely be, “Well… all of them! A healthy representation of society”. Well we do get to choose, parliament has published a petition calling for greater body diversity in adverts and if you agree, you can sign it. You may think it’s too big; it isn’t. Progress happens and this is overdue.

Advertising in its current state is as far from responsible, it’s a self-serving galavant, high on debauchery. I’m not surprised the ASA find it hard to curtail it! It’s a hedonistic, judgemental, perfectionist, with a real sense of its own entitlement. But… it is their job, and times need to change.

Emi Lou Howe is a body-positive speaker, writer and activist. Search BodEquality online or social media to sign the petition. For more info visit http://www.BodEquality.com

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