Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to “send a clear message” to advertisers about unrealistic body images.
On London’s transit network, images of semi-naked models are to become a thing of the past. This week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a ban on advertising deemed to be body-shaming across London’s subways and buses. In a statement to the press Khan said:
“As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end…Nobody should feel pressurised, while they travel on the tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies and I want to send a clear message to the advertising industry about this.”
The announcement by mayor Khan doesn’t come out of the blue. A pledge to ban unhealthy or unrealistic body images was actually part of his election manifesto. The ban also follows a major debate last year over an advertisement for protein supplements displayed throughout the tube, which displayed the question “Are you beach body ready?” accompanied by a photo of a very thin model in a bikini. Following 378 complaints from the public, Britain’s Advertising Standards Association investigated the ad but ultimately ruled that it was not offensive. Protests nonetheless continued, with a rally in London’s Hyde Park joining up with a widespread but unofficial defacing campaign. The advertiser in question, it should be noted, only helped to fuel this anger by its clueless, offensive response that suggested its detractors were mentally ill.
It’s hard to find sympathy for advertisers who insist that individual women are alone responsible for any sense of inadequacy they feel at possessing bodies that don’t correspond to advertising norms. London’s move nonetheless raises some questions. If the ban is to cover images that inspire unrealistic expectations, what kind of advertising is still allowed? Most of us are regularly exposed to advertising for products we can’t afford, for example, and this gap between what is offered and what is realistically attainable can also create a feeling of inadequacy.
And who decides which ads are allowed, and which are prohibited? There's talk of setting up some kind of forum for the mayor's office and the companies that lease the transit network's advertising space, but so far no concrete details of how the ban would be put into practice.
Meanwhile, it seems that images of male semi-nudity will not be similarly excised. When Mayor Khan was interviewed on a local radio station today, he seemed to suggest that only a surge of public complaints would instigate a clampdown on such images.
Sadiq Khan asked if he’ll also ban adverts of male models in pants: “We haven’t received complaints about David Beckham or David Gandy” #lbc— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) June 14, 2016
There is some logic in these arguments, even though they shade into whataboutism of a sort that can leave myriad problems unresolved because the world around them is also imperfect. What gives London’s ban greater validity, however, is that we are not talking about a computer screen or the pages of a magazine. The walls of a subway station are unavoidable for anyone who wants to navigate a city, and advertising displayed to sedentary passengers inside train carriages is not something you can opt out of seeing. Certainly, having access to images that others might find uncomfortable viewing may be a civil right. It still pays to remember that people who are forced to view such images during their daily commute are not being offered a similar freedom of choice.