Ben Bold
Nov 9, 2023

Dove body image ads accused of being irresponsible but ASA rules otherwise

More than 100 complaints received over 'Self-Esteem Project' campaign.

Dove body image ads accused of being irresponsible but ASA rules otherwise

Unilever has escaped censure from the Advertising Standards Authority after receiving more than 100 complaints that its anti-body-shaming advertising was irresponsible and distressing.

On the contrary, the watchdog stated that the campaign raised awareness of the harmful impact that social media can have on body image, while promoting support for those people affected.

Two TV ads and two video on-demand ads, all created by Ogilvy, promoted Dove's "Self-Esteem Project", which combats body shaming via social media.

The first ad opened by warning of "sensitive content", adding that the content featured "real stories about body appearance that may be upsetting to some viewers".

It told the story of Mary, accompanied with the song You Are So Beautiful, and including home videos of her birthdays. The last celebratory snapshot showed her unwrapping a smartphone before taking body photos of herself in side profile while holding her arm over her stomach.

The ad went on to depict social media posts for so-called "waist cinchers", using photos of flat stomachs being "liked", followed by recordings made by Mary measuring and weighing herself, while a photo of handwritten text read: "look at yourself your gross ugly self".

Mary's situation worsened, with her ending up in an eating disorder unit, attached to an intravenous drip. The Dove logo and text read: "The cost of toxic beauty content is greater than we think."

An older Mary appeared while on-screen text declared: "Mary in recovery from an eating disorder." Further scenes showed women sitting and hugging a guardian, with text stating their names and describing the conditions they were recovering from, including depression, self harm, eating disorders, anxiety and body dysmorphia.

Text read: "Social media is harming the mental health of one in two kids. Join us to protect their mental health."

The second TV ad was a shorter version, while the VOD ads were identical to both.

Collectively, they received 136 complaints, leading the ASA to investigate three issues, none of which was upheld.

Those complaining argued the ads were irresponsible and distressing, in particular to those affected by or insecure about their body image; 26 people challenged that the ads were inappropriate for children to see; and 10 people complained the ads should not have been shown during Love Island on ITV2 or on ITVX.

In its defence, Unilever said it had a 20-year history of highlighting issues around self-esteem, adding that the ads "aimed to raise awareness of the impact social media could have on mental health conditions such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety".

The FMCG giant said it had consulted with a range of experts during ad production – some of whose suggestions, such as the content warning, made the final cut.

Unilever also consulted with Clearcast, and on hearing of the ASA's investigation made the visibility of warnings more prominent.

"In Unilever's view, the campaign landed on the right side of the line in its depiction of a difficult issue, and the overall effect of the ads was a positive one," the ASA said. "The ads had drawn attention to negative body images on social media, such as having a 'thigh gap' or a 'cinched' waist, and connected those images to Mary's story to show the impact they were having."

The ads (the original and the cut-down version) were targeted at parents and carers and Unilever said it requested that they were not shown before 9pm and 6pm respectively. It also pointed out that Love Island was aimed at young adults and not children.

"Unilever said Love Island had played a central part in recent debates around online harms and body image," the ASA said.

The watchdog ruled in favour of Unilever on all counts – the ads were not in breach of the Code.

It noted that the "overall message of the ads was to raise awareness of the impact social media could have and that there was support available to give hope that recovery was possible for those affected by eating disorders or insecurities around their body image".

"We considered the ads were unlikely to encourage or be understood as condoning harmful behaviour. Furthermore, while we acknowledged the subject matter could be difficult for members of the wider public to watch, we considered the context of the overall message, as raising awareness and promoting support, was likely to be understood."

Campaign UK

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