In a recent social media and out-of-home campaign, Adidas posted a mosaic of 25 different pairs of bare breasts, of all shapes, sizes and skin tones, as part of its move to normalise the human body, in all its many variations.
I’m left feeling torn. I do love boobs, as the proud owner of a pair myself. But I’m also painfully aware of the pretty terrible track record our industry has with sexism and female representation.
Ogilvy, Mather, Bernbach, Hegarty, Saatchi – the advertising industry was founded by powerful men, and the foundation of sexism is that men hold the power. In any scenario where one group holds power, any others are invariably cast into a secondary position where their power is dependent upon being pleasing and satisfying to the powerful.
This power dynamic is expertly explored in the brilliant book Brandsplaining, by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, as brands continue to adopt the male perspective. Cunningham and Roberts illustrate how brands have got into the habit of paternally offering their products to women, as a handy way for us to bridge the gap between reality and the "ideal" woman. In order to curry favour with the powerful, brands step up to help us be as helpful, agreeable, attractive, useful and, importantly, non-threatening as possible.
Meanwhile, through this same male gaze, a woman’s body is her best asset. An object of value that can, and has been, used to generate significant revenues for corporations. We are sadly all too accustomed to seeing disembodied feminine curves decorating the billboards on our streets and the ads in our magazines. Over the years, dehumanised female figures have sold us everything from shower gel to telecoms and car insurance.
Not to get too graphic about it, but big business has been milking that cash cow for long enough, frankly. So when I first saw this Adidas ad, with rows upon rows of women’s bodies, without a face or a head or really any sense of the human being behind the boob, it did feel pretty tiresome, honestly.
Some of the replies Adidas tweeted throughout the campaign talk about "normalising" our bodies – implying it has chosen to feature naked breasts as a statement against the hyper-sexualisation of the female form.
But I’d argue showing just the breasts, detached from any other part of the body and devoid of any deeper human connection, actively encourages voyeurism and fetishisation.
I would also argue Adidas knew this. Adidas was aware that posting a load of boobs would be incendiary on its Twitter feed – and that’s a creative decision I’m OK with. I’m all for using the clout and reach of a global brand to make a conversation about body diversity go viral. But it feels disingenuous to then also pretend to be outraged about how much attention and spectacle this content receives.
In other words, don’t say you’re in favour of freeing the caged tiger while also still selling tickets to the circus.
There are, however, many things about this campaign I loved, once I started to get under the freckled, wrinkly, wobbly and beautifully unique skin of this unretouched campaign. For example, the women in this ad may be faceless but they certainly are not homogenous, unimportant or interchangeable. Each is depicted as a unique individual with the agency to choose the right product for her body and her needs.
Adidas is promoting a product designed for women, by women, and the entire campaign is all about giving women more choice and control. With 43 new styles, available in 72 sizes, this range is designed to cater to more bodies and more workout types than ever before – “so everyone can find the right fit for them”.
As Caroline Criado Perez has been preaching for years, women’s needs are historically underserved by big business. In her book, Invisible Women, Perez highlights how everything, from seatbelts to bus routes, has been designed around men.
Sportswear, it turns out, is no different. Professor Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, has flagged that breast movement in sport continues to be an area that is overlooked, with serious, potentially irreversible consequences. In fact, when she began her work on breast health 17 years ago, there were thousands of studies on sports shoes but only six looked at bras and support.
So overall, I’m feeling pretty torn. Adidas has created a product that solves a real problem for real people and their campaign does a great job of celebrating all of the different and diverse ways boobs can be beautiful. That’s an empowering message and it puts power into the hands of the women it serves – rather than helping them to meet some external standard or expectation.
But I must admit, as the memes of Don Draper slapping tits on everything started to fill my Twitter feed, this campaign did get my feminist spidey senses tingling. I am extremely tired of seeing women’s bodies generating revenue for big business and I struggle to see how such headline-grabbing PR stunts will help normalise female anatomy.
So let’s celebrate this campaign as progress but also acknowledge that even with the breast of intentions, our industry still has a long way to go.
Amy Williams is the founder of purposeful adtech company Good Loop