Belfast Telegraph

Women shouldn't rise to the bait of annoying adverts

BY Fionola Meredith

It's been a hot week. We've all been stripping off in the sun, and I have a burning question for you. Are you beach body ready?

Sorry, that came out too fast. My sincere apologies. What I really should have done, as a socially-responsible person, was to issue a trigger warning first. A heads-up that the question may offend, damage or traumatise. People who are bothered about their weight, or shape, or indeed any negative aspect of their bodily appearance may want to look away now, in case the following discussion scars them for life.

Ok. So for those hardy souls still with me, here we go again. The vexed issue of whether a company can display the bikini-clad body of a very fit - in all senses of the word - model on advertising billboards, alongside the query, "are you beach body ready?" has finally been resolved.

When the advert first appeared, there was horror among right-on types on social media, and a mob was quickly assembled. The ad was slammed as "offensive, irresponsible and harmful because it promotes an unhealthy body image". Now, after almost 400 complaints, more than 70,000 petition signatures and a protest in Hyde Park in London, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has spoken. And the verdict is ... yes, no problem, go right ahead. Protein World is free to continuing peddling its weight-loss wares this way, because no UK advertising rules have been broken.

Well, praise be! It's reassuring to learn that there's at least one public body that doesn't automatically capitulate to the self-righteous and intolerant offence-takers. "We did not consider the image of the model would shame women who had different body shapes into believing they needed to take a slimming supplement to feel confident wearing swimwear in public," said the ASA. "We concluded that the headline and image were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence."

Let me just say that I don't like this ad at all. I do find it offensive. I dislike the way it seeks to put pressure on female consumers to buy Protein World's horrid, gloopy weight-loss milkshakes, by encouraging them to compare their own imperfect bodies with that of the honed and airbrushed goddess on the advertising hoarding. To my mind, it aims to provoke shame in order to exert leverage on women to buy. And that's a pretty shoddy tactic.

But guess what? Women have a very useful organ between their ears. It's called a brain. Instead of collapsing into a pool of bitter tears, demanding that Mr ASA take the nasty ad away, and renouncing the golden sands for an entire summer, they can use their powers of intellect to deduce exactly what nasty little game is being played here. They can say so, loudly. Having done that, they can move on to matters of more substantial concern.

The contemporary feminist movement is way off course because it continually turns women into victims: vulnerable, weedy things that are in constant need of official protection. Take the absurd hoo-ha over Nobel-winning biologist Tim Hunt's comments about female scientists. Hunt made a lame and unfunny joke about women being prone to crying in the lab and falling in love with their male counterparts. Yet from the reaction, you'd think he'd proposed bringing back the ducking-stool, and he was forced to resign from his positions at University College London (UCL), the European Research Council and the Royal Society. The broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby has now resigned his own honorary fellowship with UCL in solidarity with Hunt. "The idea that serious grown-up women thinking of pursuing a science career … would be put off by an elderly professor saying something silly then apologising for it seems bizarre," he said.

Exactly. We don't need to rip down, silence and squash everything that happens to offend. In fact, to do so demeans and weakens us. It drains us of agency and the power to challenge genuine injustices; we're too busy crying in a corner because an advert hurt our feelings, and nobody gave us a trigger warning in time.

More seriously, such behaviour makes a mockery of authentic victimhood. Years ago, I attended the premiere of an unflinchingly realistic film about the Omagh bombing. Survivors of the atrocity were present in the cinema, and at the point where the bomb detonated, one victim began screaming uncontrollably, overwhelmed by fear. That's real trauma, real damage, real pain. Annoying adverts are a mere gnat-bite. We need to learn to tell the difference.

Belfast Telegraph


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