Summer is upon us, and, perhaps inevitably, ads at this time of year tend to reveal more of models’ bodies. But when a greater emphasis is placed on the physiques of models, advertisers should ensure that they don’t promote particular body types in an irresponsible manner.

Advertising responsibly

Complaints about ads promoting irresponsible body image tend to focus on the thinness of the model used in the ad, and these complaints are considered in light of the Code rules on social responsibility. In its ruling on an ad for clothing company, Drop Dead Clothing, as well as the recent ruling on Yves Saint Laurent, the ASA considered the complainants’ concerns that the model looked underweight and anorexic or unhealthily thin, respectively.

However, it’s important to make clear that the ASA isn’t here to ban ads featuring thin people. The factors that the ASA found problematic in these cases were not so much the models’ general build as how the ads depicted them in a way that they might be seen as underweight and unhealthy.

When depicting a model, then, take care and think about the ad as a whole. Is there a danger that you’ve made a model look unhealthily thin or vulnerable, perhaps through the style and make-up or through exposing a lot of skin? Bearing in mind the common themes in the ASA’s rulings on this topic, advertisers might find it useful to ask the following questions.

Are the model’s bones visible?

The ASA has Upheld complaints about ads where a model’s hips, ribs, thigh bones or collarbones have been noticeably prominent. Where this occurs, and where there are visible hollows surrounding these bones, the ASA may well find that the model is depicted in a way that could be interpreted as unhealthily thin, rather than just having a slim build.

Does the model’s pose exaggerate this effect?

Although a given model might be a picture of health in everyday life, different poses can exaggerate different parts of the body. In the rulings on Drop Dead Clothing and YSL, the ASA found that the models’ poses made the bones in their torsos particularly prominent. When they tell models to ‘strike a pose’, then, advertisers should take care that these poses don’t make them look unhealthy.

Does the model’s makeup support the impression that they are unhealthy?

While advertisers may be tempted to make the most of a model’s razor-sharp cheekbones, in its ruling on Yves Saint Laurent the ASA found that the use of heavy eye make-up reinforced the impression that the model was unhealthily thin. It wasn’t the make-up alone that gave this impression, but it certainly factored into the ASA’s decision.

Does the lighting add to this impression?

Just like make-up, lighting can make some features stand out and some appear more ‘hollow’ due to shadows. The ASA has previously found that lighting contributed to the impression that a model’s thigh bones were unhealthily prominent, so this is another point that advertisers should take care over.

Could the costume factor into the ASA’s thinking?

In its ruling on YSL, the ASA found that the model’s legs were made to look particularly thin when contrasted with the platform shoes she was wearing. If models’ clothes make them look unhealthily thin, advertisers might consider picking a different size.

Targeting

It’s important to remember that the ASA considers not only the content of an ad, but also the context in which it appears. In a couple of the rulings mentioned above, the ASA noted the ads were targeted at and likely to appeal to young people. It noted the use of the models implied that the images were representative of the people who might wear these items, and that they were something to aspire to, and this contributed to its decision to uphold against the ads.

Although ads featuring models who appear to be underweight should be avoided in general, research by Credos and the Body Confidence Campaign has indicated that this is an issue of particular concern to young women. Advertisers should therefore take particular care with ads that depict or target these groups, to ensure that they’re socially responsible.

Read our advice about targeting.


More on


  • Keep up to date

    Sign up to our rulings, newsletters and emargoed access for Press. Subscribe now.