Revised Calvin Klein ruling

At the ASA we’re tasked, among other things, with deciding whether ads have broken the rules.  

In cases where an ad is likely to mislead that’s typically a more objective process. But in cases where an ad is likely to cause harm or offence, our decisions are clearly more subjective. We’re making judgements that aim to reflect societal standards, but that’s difficult when reasonable minds can and do differ on where to draw the line. Our decisions can split opinion. And those opinions can be deeply held.  

That was certainly so with our January ruling about fashion brand Calvin Klein’s three posters, one featuring the singer FKA Twigs and two featuring the model and media personality Kendall Jenner.  

Our decision to ban only the poster featuring FKA Twigs was widely criticised, not least by the singer herself. We’re not deaf to the commentary that surrounds our decision making. We’re genuinely interested in hearing what people think and have to say. And we’re not afraid to challenge our own thinking and change our decisions if we think we’ve got it wrong. 

We have carefully reviewed our decision and, today, republished the ruling.  

We have made clear that while we think the image of FKA Twigs was overtly sexual (though not sexually explicit), the ad presented her as confident and in control and, therefore, she had not been presented as a stereotypical sexual object. We have, however, maintained our decision that the overtly sexual image of FKA Twigs was not suitable for display in an untargeted medium, a poster, where anyone could see it. In that regard, we thought it was materially different to the mildly sexual and sexually suggestive, but not overtly sexual, images of Kendall Jenner in the other two posters. So, the ban still applies for that reason. 

It’s important to remember that ads often arrive in our lives uninvited. We can’t opt-out of seeing an outdoor poster, so it’s important they’re targeted appropriately. At the heart of our work is the protection of children and we know adults are particularly concerned about the ads young people see, hear and interact with.  

While the external criticism was important and gave us pause for thought, it was not in fact the reason we revisited our ruling. That reason was our unease about the wording in the ruling explaining our rationale for our decision that FKA Twigs had been objectified. We thought it was inconsistent in its treatment of the three posters and was therefore flawed.  

Beyond the issues we investigated, the media reaction to our January ruling included accusations of double standards given other Calvin Klein advertising, featuring the actor Jermey Allen White, which broke at around the time we published the ruling. The challenge was that if FKA Twigs was objectified then surely Jeremy Allen White was too? We didn’t receive any complaints about the Jeremy Allen White ads that we could pursue, because the complaints appeared to be based on media coverage or ads appearing outside the UK. So we haven’t formally investigated the ads. We have, though, considered the ads in the round when reassessing the FKA Twigs poster, and our view is that the Jeremy Allen White ads would be unlikely to break our rules.  

We were also challenged on whether race played a part in our decision to ban the FKA Twigs poster but not the Kendal Jenner ones. The race or identity of the women was not relevant to and did not form part of our rulings, either original or revised. What’s relevant are the differences between the images, with the FKA Twigs image being overtly sexual in an untargeted poster and the Kendal Jenner images materially less so. 

All of this goes to illustrate the delicate challenge of judging issues around stereotyping, objectification and harm and offence. It involves teasing out and reaching judgements on nuanced and often complex and sensitive issues. As part of our new five-year strategy, we’re going to review the thresholds for intervening against ads on grounds of offence and prioritise the most serious cases. We think it will always be important to act in the most serious cases of harm and offence but, where an issue is highly subjective and, more often than not, socially divisive, it may not warrant our intervention.  

As the advertising watchdog, we’re tasked with making decisions on what is and isn’t likely to cause harm or offence. We won’t please everyone all of the time – that’s not possible – but we will take account of content, context and likely audience. We will listen to what people think. And we’ll always be prepared to challenge our own decision if we think we’ve got it wrong. 

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