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Protein World Body-shaming
The original – Protein World’s body-shaming advia

Five ads that took body-shaming to a whole new level

As Sadiq Khan announces his plans to eliminate ‘manipulative’ advertising, we look back at some of the worst offenders

Millennials know that it’s now easier than ever to have your self-esteem destroyed. Tagged photos, Periscope cameos, bad changing room lighting; these various small factors can slowly unravel even the most body-positive attitudes. It’s hard enough to be confident in an image-obsessed society anyway – why should we be confronted with derogatory ads plastered throughout London’s underground to make us feel even worse about ourselves? This was the question last week asked by mayor Sadiq Khan, who vowed to eradicate all traces of body-shaming in advertisements throughout London transport.

Khan released a statement to accompany his new policy, voicing concerns that his two teenage daughters could be influenced by these so-called ‘aspirational’ adverts. “Nobody should feel pressurised, while they travel on the tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies, and I want to send a clear message to the advertising industry about this.”

His comments come almost a year after Protein World caused national outrage with its “Are you beach body ready?” ads, which prompted a slew of sarcastic responses from body-positive feminists. Surprisingly – and somewhat depressingly – this isn’t the first time that companies have crossed the line with their campaigns. In celebration of Khan’s empowering new policies, we look back at five examples of truly questionable advertising.


You might remember website Ashley Madison from the widespread infidelity scandal that led to scores of men committing suicide. It’s unsurprising that a site which encourages marital betrayal can occasionally hit below the belt with its ad campaigns, but the above example still came as a shock. “We call it as we see it” screams the text, which hovers above two women – one thin, one fat – laid out in lingerie. Naturally, the bigger model has a big red ‘X’ next to her – because who in their right mind would willingly have sex with a fat woman, right? A later edition of the ad was released with the same image of the second model accompanied by the question “Did your wife SCARE you last night?” It’s alright guys – if you somehow got lumbered with a wife that dared to gain weight throughout your marriage it’s completely cool and morally acceptable to pay to find a sexy new replacement. Ashley Madison says it so it must be true, right?


It’s surprising that a charity ad made this list; it’s doubly surprising that PETA has a controversial reputation for its offensive campaigns. There was the animal rights campaign that objectified women; there was the bizarre campaign that sexualised women by wrapping their naked bodies in giant plants and there was the above advert – which apparently aims to ‘save the whales’ and help us all ‘lose the blubber’. The company itself admitted that the ad was controversial and gave no other explanation, replacing the billboard with a less divisive endorsement which stated that vegetarians lose weight. It may be scientifically proven that veggies tend to weigh slightly less than carnivores – but is there really no way to communicate this point without fat-shaming?


As is the case with most brands that try to be ‘edgy’ with their advertisements, Popchips has offended a lot of people. The brand’s “president of pop culture” Ashton Kutcher pissed off a load of Indian-Americans a few years ago with an offensive dating spoof in which he played the character of ‘Raj’; Katy Perry’s ads for the brands were less intentionally controversial, but still deserve to be questioned. Posing in exercise gear, the star is accompanied by the tagline “Love. Without the handles” as she apparently substitutes actual weights with two bags of low-calorie snacks. The implication is that her body is aspirational and 100% achieved by a sole diet of Popchips – the rest of chubbies should fix up and follow her lead. The final touch of wankery comes with Perry’s apparent ‘quote’ – “I curl Popchips straight to my lips. Good thing they don’t go straight to my hips.” Really?


In another example of ‘shaming fat women for daring to show even a hint of sexuality’, e-cigarette company Blucigs released this questionable advert which shows a half-naked man in bed next a woman sprawled out – presumably his drunken conquest. The caption is short and simple: “No regrets”. The implication is obvious – the subtext is that this guy had picked up the girl from a bar after a few whiskies and woken up to regret the news that his chosen lay was a few stone overweight. Even more suggestive is the woman’s PVC outfit – it implies that fat women are fetishised by straight men and are therefore only palatable as a caricature of sexuality as opposed to a legitimate long-term partner.


It’s fairly obvious that not all of us are Victoria’s Secret models, but it’s also fairly obvious that perection is subjective – maybe why this ill-advised ad was so controversial. A row of scantily-clad glamazons are accompanied by the label “The Perfect Body”, although this slogan was later changed to ‘A body for every body’ after the Internet rightly lost its shit over the original. There is no such thing as a perfect body; to argue this case is dangerous and can have serious effects on the self-esteem of women and girls worldwide. Even more dangerous is the implication that new knickers can help achieve ‘perfection’. After all, there’s a knack to monetising insecurity, and the underwear industry in particular has it nailed.