Brand Responsibility: Body Image

by Georgia Sanders

Last summer, Protein World’s Beach Body Ready campaign sparked a new energy in the ongoing debate of brands’ responsibility when it comes to consumer body image.

The campaign, which infamously depicted a thin woman in a bikini, advertised meal replacement supplements alongside the phrase “are you beach body ready?”, and received 378 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), suggesting that the ad was socially irresponsible and implied that women should not feel comfortable in beachwear unless they conformed to a certain size and shape.

The ASA said the ad did not breach any UK rules relating to harm and offence or responsible advertising, but did state that the ad cannot run again after voicing concerns about the campaign’s health and weight loss claims.


A similar issue arose last month when discount fitness company Pure Gym had an employee run down the street in a ‘fat suit’ to hand out leaflets to the public.

But to what extent are brands responsible for so-called ‘body shaming’, and when does it merely come under the general motive of marketing the brand?

Whilst brands do have a right to market their product providing it is not harmful or offensive, it is clear that negative body image is a destructive and prevalent force in modern culture. 97 per cent of American women admitted to having at least one “I hate my body” moment a day, according to Vitamin IMC.

Men, too, struggle with body image: “More than four in five men (80.7 per cent) talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections, compared with 75 per cent of women. Similarly, 38 per cent of men would sacrifice at least a year of their life in exchange for a perfect body – again, a higher proportion than women,” says Denis Campbell, The Guardian.

Marketers bear a significant weight of this responsibility in perpetuating the ‘thin/muscular’ ideal, by capitalising on consumers’ lack of self-confidence, both in size and beauty norms. Make-up, weight loss products, slimming clothing – all products which encourage consumers to conform to a pre-determined ideal of beauty, eschewing their own individuality in the process.

On top of this, various brands without relevance to beauty have, in the past, relied on the objectification of both men and women within their adverts. The Diet Coke advert depicting the muscular man in the lift, for example, or ads for Lynx deodorant showing women flocking to whomever uses the spray. Seemingly harmless, but a minor concern in a culture where eating disorders and confidence issues are an ongoing and serious problem.

However, marketers may not be solely responsible for these problems – but they do have the power to help solve them.

The 2004 “Dove Campaign For Real Beauty” by Unilever was applauded for “get[ting] men and women worldwide to think about the narrow definitions of female beauty” – as well as garnering a 300 per cent ROI. More recently, Unilever has realised that only 2 per cent of women shown in its Lynx campaigns are depicted as intelligent, and vowed to change its approach.

As the body positivity movement gains more and more traction, and men and women internationally are getting used to the idea of accepting themselves as they are, companies that do lean on objectification are fast learning to change their ways. After 2014 saw plummeting sales for Barbie, for example, the brand released a new range of dolls in a variety of shapes, sizes and races so that all young girls could grow up seeing a variety in body shape – and knowing that it is perfectly normal.

ASOS have also implemented their ‘Positive Body Image’ manifesto in their corporate responsibilities. This promises to use their influence among young fashion-lovers in a responsible way by “promoting a healthy, positive body image” by participating in body confidence government panels, bringing experts in to train employees on body image and health, ensuring models are of a healthy weight and shape. They have also promised not to digitally retouch images to make models appear thinner.

The constant morality battle sees the point that yes, insecurity sells – yet so does empowerment, as exemplified by companies such as Dove and ASOS.

Can Marketers make a positive difference to the mental wellbeing of consumers? The answer is, it’s highly probable.

“Marketers are positioned at an important and unique place to combat negative body image and promote body-positivity through their brands,” says Vitamin IMC. “This strategy is not only socially and morally responsible, but, when implemented effectively, can prove highly profitable. As future leaders in Integrated Marketing Communications, it is our responsibility to help promote these body-positive ideals and challenge companies to pursue responsible tactics and generate meaningful relationships with consumers.”

How responsible are brands when it comes to body image and body positivity? Or does the blame lay elsewhere? We want to hear your thoughts – tweet us @Figaro_Digital