Unless you have been living under a rock these past few days (or haven’t logged on to Twitter, which amounts to much the same) you have probably caught passing breezes from an almighty flap about the London Underground billboard advertising campaign for Protein World.
Featuring the improbably slender physique of Australian model Renee Somerfield next to the slogan “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” these posters inspired an online petition demanding their removal and an associated social media tempest. Things really got lively, however, when the company declined to follow the usual corporate PR social media strategy (issue a half-arsed apology for “any offence caused” then batten down the hatches) and instead standing their ground and launching gleefully into a full-blown flame-war with their critics – apparently handled personally by their CEO and marketing director.
Now, for the neutral observer it will be interesting to see how this transpires. The company are claiming massive boosts to sales and unprecedented brand awareness. I see no reason to doubt the truth of this, although I’m less convinced it will play well for them in the long-term. For now I am more interested in trying to figure out what this row is really all about.
Following the storm as closely as I can, I have seen numerous different issues conflated and elided. Teasing them apart as best I can, the complaints seem to be:
1. The objectification of women, in unspecified terms.
2. The assertion that there is something called a “beach body” distinct from any other body.
3. That the presentation of the model is tantamount to ‘fat-shaming’
4. That the model’s (impossibly photoshopped?) perfect body is aimed at making other women feel ashamed of their bodies.
5. That diet-pills and potions are unhealthy or dangerous, or amount to ineffective snake-oils.
(I don’t doubt there have been other complaints made, but these five seem to capture most of those I have seen.)
Are any of these complaints reasonable and fair? Personally I struggle to see how the charge of objectification can stick, whatever definition one uses. If ever there was a product that could be fairly advertised with a thin model in a bikini, surely a slimming product is the one? What’s more, Somerfield’s pose is hardly passive, submissive or vulnerable. She is, as the Tumbleristas would say, fierce.
It is of course entirely reasonable to say that there is no such thing as an (acceptable) beach body. Beaches are for everyone, whatever size or shape one may be. At the same time there can be little doubt that for many people (not all of them women) losing weight in the weeks or months before a beach holiday is considered a priority, which is why the magazines and other media all run ‘beach body’ features at this time of year and the diet / health industry tries to cash in. Of course it is immoral and ugly that commerce chases our money by poisoning our self-esteem then selling us the antidote but, hello, capitalism. Likewise, the medical professions might have good grounds for concern about use and misuse of protein shakes and other pills and potions, but that problem hardly begins and ends with Protein World.
When everything is stripped down to bare bones and bikini, it seems to me that nobody is quite sure what is wrong with the Protein World billboards, but a lot of people agree that, for whatever reason, it has really pissed them off. Maybe it is a little bit of all the reasons above, some perfectly valid, others perhaps less so. On top of that there is, I would suggest, one other cause for anger going on here and it is one that should, in my view, be applauded. I think the Protein World adverts are being perceived as a breach of the unwritten, unspoken rules of the contract of the urban commons.
Over recent decades the urban commons has increasingly been enclosed and co-opted by commercial interests, enabled and empowered by the iron heel and the big stick of legal state power. If you are in a town or city right now, look around and try to find a snapshot, a vista, a panorama, that is not riddled with branding, with advertising, with people trying to invade your consciousness, demand your attention, shift your thinking or bluntly sell you something. Even if you are lucky enough to catch a view without a billboard, look again and notice the ad-bedecked bus or even pedestrians carrying their own little polyurethane product placements or branded clothing.
Most of the time we accept this, unthinkingly, unknowingly. It is an unspoken contract which says you can bombard our conscious and unconscious minds with garish advertising and in return we will accept the trinkets that come as participants in consumer capitalism. Just occasionally, something pervades our consciousness and we think, whoa, no, too much. It might be a political poster for Ukip or it might be a campaign to flog dieting gunk, but it is as if a red bulb lights up in our mind and we think no, enough, too much. I didn’t sign up for this. For whatever reasons, this image, these words, this campaign is polluting my consciousness beyond the limits which I am prepared to accept.
And that is why, for all the clever witticisms and political slogans that have peppered the reactions to the Protein World campaign, the one that – for me – best represents the issues is simple and to the point. It simply says, FUCK OFF.
This, to me, says everything that needs to be said about Protein World and their advertising. Almost everything about them, from the nature of their product to the nature of their advertising, is dehumanising, exploitative, degrading, tasteless, ugly and crass. It is the kind of thing that when historians recall the decades at the turn of the 21st century, will surely be held up as a representative symbol of our decadence. In that, they are far, far from alone. Today people’s anger is focused on a diet-potion pedlar. Tomorrow it will be a car manufacturer or a junk food merchant, and the reasons, the spark, will be similarly vague and arbitrary. The barked, muttered or scrawled reaction of “FUCK OFF” however, will be only too clear.