Pretty Little Thing advert ban will have wider implications for the fashion industry

A recent clothing ad by Pretty Little Thing has been denounced by the ASA as “overly sexualised”, “likely to cause serious offence” and “irresponsible”. Certainly, the advert featured several scantily-clad women in sexualised and seductive poses. But if you have ever watched a music channel or flicked through a fashion magazine you might be left wondering whether you have unconsciously been “seriously offended” more times than you can count.

Is this a sign of things to come? Censorship, based on perceived moral or social ‘harms’ which are defined by watchdogs with the power to prohibit otherwise lawful behaviours? Is liberalism being slowly eroded? If so, the future of advertising in the UK is heading down a worrying path – one with repercussions for online retailers.

Consistency is key

The Pretty Little Thing ad begins with a woman wearing black vinyl, high-waisted chaps-style knickers and a cut-out orange bra, dragging a neon bar behind her. When the camera pans up towards her, she turns to look over her shoulder. It is a scene that would not be out of place in a music video. Instead, it featured in a YouTube pre-roll ad for the fashion brand, which has now been banned from screens.

Consumers access a huge variety of content daily, whether via print, social media, internet platforms or streaming services and there is a serious debate around sexualisation and social responsibility across all of these formats. It seems, however, that advertising content has been singled out disproportionally.

The ruling has sparked serious questions about why advertising content in particular is so heavily regulated. It does not seem appropriate or in any way effective to be held to a different standard than most other types of content, especially when the standard for advertising results in censorship or the over-sanitation of content.

If advertising content is to avoid questionable rulings, it should be judged on a similar playing field to other forms of written and digital content, particularly if it is to appear on social media.

Know your audience and customers

Pretty Little Thing’s ad cannot be used again because the ASA considered that it was likely to “cause serious offence by objectifying women”, regardless of the audience. But if this ad had been carefully targeted to ensure it was only viewed by women, and had only appeared before a music video or other content showing women in settings far more risqué than this ad, would (or should) the ASA still have regarded it as being socially irresponsible to the extent of imposing a ban?

As a fashion eCommerce leader aimed at young women and given the type of clothing it sells, any ad for Pretty Little Thing runs the risk of provoking offence by the ASA’s criteria. But if the ad was targeted towards Pretty Little Thing customers and consistent with the company’s website and brand, surely it would not cause offence.

The clothing worn by the women featured in the ad was presumably on sale from Pretty Little Thing and the target audience would have been other women. The ASA’s ruling crucially avoided adequate discussion over whether the ad was suitable for its target audience and failed to give a clear explanation of what social responsibility entails. It begs the question whether the ASA’s actions in banning the ad were proportionate.

Pretty Little Thing seem to be of the same opinion. They argued the advert “highlighted how they supported and promoted diversity through bold and distinctive fashion of all shapes and sizes which focused on different trends”.

The objectification of women (and men) is a serious issue. Likewise, stereotypical portrayals of women, accompanied by overt sexual messaging is clearly problematic when the target audience for the advert consists primarily of men, or if the product being sold is something totally separate - a supercar, for example. But that’s not what Pretty Little Thing did. It used images of women to promote its sexy clothing range to women. A ban seems excessive.

eCommerce advertising

Although the ASA has recently been grappling with the ban on harmful gender stereotypes, it did not consider whether or not this ad constituted a harmful gender stereotype. And indeed, whether something is ‘sexy’ in an exploitative or empowering way is often a matter of interpretation. Additionally, there was no suggestion that the women in this ad were vulnerable, very young, or unhealthily thin, which would have raised slightly different issues.

This, in a nutshell, symbolises the issue at hand: when a regulator, free from scrutiny, bases its judgement on what it thinks could be offensive, with a disregard for the context, it is almost inevitable that questionable judgements will be reached.

Online retailers, especially those emerging onto the market and looking to bring disruption and challenge established brands, ought to take note. The Pretty Little Thing advert was clearly aimed at young women who buy online and are interested in the retailer’s brand and clothing, so it is worrying that the ASA chose to ban the ad. The ASA appears to be raising the bar higher each year, using its power to censor British advertisements which it considers, at its own discretion, to be socially irresponsible or likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

In this environment, online retailers will need to do their due diligence and think hard before committing to creative and engaging advertising campaigns. The result, sadly, could be a poorer advertising ecosystem where inspiring online retailers struggle to demonstrate their creativity and brilliance to full effect.

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