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Ad Standards upholds first complaint under body image rule

23 September 2020

#Technology, Media & Telecommunications

Published by:

Kate O'Mara

Ad Standards upholds first complaint under body image rule

In a determination last month, the Ad Standards Community Panel (Panel) upheld a complaint about an online advertisement for Calvin Klein underwear. In its determination, the Panel made it clear that images used in advertising which appear to have been digitally altered to depict an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape will likely breach the community standards on health and safety set out in the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics (Code).

This is the first case to be upheld by the Panel since the rules on the portrayal of body image were tightened in 2018.  

The advertisement

The advertisement considered by the Panel was an online product listing for a Calvin Klein underwear set. The underwear set was modelled by a woman standing in a variety of poses.

The complaint and Calvin Klein’s response

The complainant was concerned that the images of the model were “pro-anorexia” and would lead to “young impressionable people” thinking that “unrealistic and unhealthy models are what people should look like.”

In its response to the complaint, Calvin Klein argued that it is “committed to demonstrate diversity of model talent in terms of shape, bust size, colour and body size, reflecting the breadth of its consumer base.” By way of example, it pointed out that its website has a plus size section which uses curvy models. 

Prevailing community standards on health and safety

In assessing the advertisement and complaints, the Panel considered the Code, which forms part of the self-regulatory framework adopted by the advertising industry to encourage honesty, accuracy, fairness and social responsibility in advertising.

Specifically, the Panel considered section 2.6 of the Code which provides that: “Advertising or Marketing Communication shall not depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety”. There is no single test for prevailing community standards – defined as those standards “determined by the Ad Standards Community Panel as those prevailing at the relevant time” – they evolve constantly and differ depending on the subject matter.

In 2018, the Australian Association of National Advertisers launched an updated Code of Ethics Practice Note, which added specific rules and extensive guidance on portrayals in advertising of unrealistic or unattainable body shapes. Specifically, the Practice Note provides that: “Advertising must not portray an unrealistic ideal body image by portraying body shapes or features that are unrealistic or unattainable through healthy practices.”

The Panel’s decision

The Panel considered each image in the advertisement separately and found several images to be in breach of section 2.6 of the Code. The Panel stated that although it could not determine whether the woman shown in the advertisement was actually unhealthy, the woman did appear to be “very thin” and “gaunt”. Additionally, the Panel considered that some of the images appeared to be digitally altered such that they portrayed an unrealistic body image unattainable through healthy practices.

In response to the determination, Calvin Klein removed the relevant images from its website.

Learning from the Panel’s decision

The decision provides the following useful guidance for advertisers:

  • be careful when digitally altering an image for use in advertising
    Advertisers are not prohibited from digitally altering images of models under the Code. Additionally, the Code does not require disclosure when images have been digitally altered. However, where an image has been altered to the extent that the body shape or features are no longer realistic or attainable through healthy practices, it may be found in breach.
    In this respect, the Code of Ethics Practice Note makes it clear that Advertisers should refrain from altering images in a way that changes the body shape or proportions portrayed, for example by lengthening a person’s legs to the extent they are not in proportion with the rest of their body or tightening their waist disproportionately to the rest of their body so that the resulting image portrays a body shape or features that are unrealistic or unattainable through healthy practices
  • consider the requirements of the Code when using international advertising material
    Businesses should ensure that where international advertising is to be communicated to the public in Australia, it has been checked for compliance with the Code. In this case, Calvin Klein submitted that the model shown in the offending images was a model from its European website. However, the Panel did not consider it relevant that the images had been used without issue in online international campaigns.

Authors: Ian Robertson AO, Sarah Butler & Kate O’Mara

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Published by:

Kate O'Mara

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