Protein World brings banned body-shaming ad to the US

Controversial ad rolled out in New York's Times Square
Controversial ad rolled out in New York's Times Square

Weight loss firm goads New Yorkers with its controversial Beach Body ad, but is its strategy vulgar or visionary?

Unmoved by the recent outcry over its controversial Beach Body ad, Protein World has brought its brand of fat-shaming to New York, flipping off critics this side of the Atlantic.

A giant billboard featuring a slender bikini-clad model now towers over passersby in Times Square, asking "Are You Bikini Body Ready?"

In April, the ad for the weight-loss brand created outrage in the UK over concerns it promoted unhealthy and negative body issues.

More than 70,000 people signed an online petition at to remove the posters that appeared in the city's underground transport system, while protesters staged a demonstration against the campaign in London’s Hyde Park.

The UK’s independent advertising watchdog banned the ad, citing "concerns about a range of health and weight loss claims." The watchdog is also conducting a "social responsibility" probe into the campaign.

But it wasn’t the poster campaign alone that created such outrage: the company’s unsavory response to the backlash added fuel to the flames.

"The ads aren't the problem," Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, which promotes gender equality in advertising, said. "The company's incendiary remarks about ‘fatties’ on social media are."

As the scandal broke in the UK, the company took to retweeting anti-feminist messages such as "need to put feminists in their place" and "screw those bitches," while Protein World’s CEO Arjun Seth replied to critics saying they had "insecurities" and should "grow up."

And it seems the company is employing the same backlash-goading tactics for the US launch, with its CMO Richard Staveley describing it as a "fat F-U" to London protesters, who "helped pay for the New York launch," according to Breitbart London.

"In the scope of ads that shame women, this is garden-variety stuff," Gordon said. "My biggest beef with the ad is it's unremarkable. The headline feels like it was lifted straight from the creative brief."

"Women have been dieting for swimsuit season since the dawn of time," Gordon continued. "There's nothing new here. Why it struck a chord seems more in the ways the company handled the backlash — showing disdain for anyone who isn't a size six."

Read more: Gender always causes a stir, no less so in adland

During the Protein World scandal, many brands and agencies couldn’t resist jumping on the real-time bandwagon, rolling out tactical ads in support of the campaigners. Beer brand Carlsberg cheekily asked "Are You Beer Body Ready? #Probably".

Another ad, created in Dove’s name, features three women with varying body types, replying "Yes We Are Beach Body Ready." Dove, which has spearheaded diversity of women’s body types in advertising through its "Real Beauty" campaign, disowned the ad, but said in a statement, "We do believe that every woman is beach body ready."

Laura Fegley, executive creative director at BBH New York, said the ad is just "a more crass, less subtle version of a million ads and images we're confronted with daily."

"Instead of implying you should look like this, they're just coming out and saying it," she said.

She questions why a brand would choose to take this "mean girl" approach to marketing. "This brand-as-bully eventually stopped working for Abercrombie, and it did some serious damage to Lululemon. It will be interesting how long this continues to pay off for a weight loss brand," she said. 

Looking beyond the social issues this campaign antagonizes, it’s a success from a marketing standpoint, argued Alex Smith, planning director at Sense. Not because of the copious amount of publicity it's generated, but rather because it’s authentic to its target audience, which is "the extreme end of thinspiration, male and female Instagram models, and people who celebrate perfection to the nth degree," he said.

Smith believes it's unlikely the ad was designed to be provocative, but Protein World's consequent decision to push back against its critics turned it into a winning strategy. "We are all familiar with the notion that good marketing is doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing, and recognizing you don’t have to be all things to all people," he said.

"Within their own little niche, this is one of the most authentic brands in the whole world right now," he said. "I genuinely think this could be a watershed moment for marketing — they are pretty visionary."

Read more: Content like a girl, new feminist inspirations for brands

But Smith questions whether this campaign will have the same impact in the US as it did in the UK, since the international-facing media have already spilled plenty of ink over it.

If indeed the ad campaign intially courted controversy by accident, then timing has a large part to play in the sequence of events. The ad arrived slap bang in the middle of an industry-wide discussion about the way women are portrayed in advertising, with calls for more positive and diverse representation gaining momentum.

Just last week, Always' much-lauded "Like a Girl" ad cleaned up at the D&AD awards, while brands like Under Amour, Pantene and Sport England are also winning applause for the way they have pushed back against tired gender stereotyping.

Writing on this subject for Campaign US last week, Maxus CEO Lindsay Pattison discussed the importance of advertising that represents the true feminine voice, citing the Protein World’s campaign as one that sets the industry back.

"The fact that this sort of campaign can see the light of day shows we still have much work to do. It damages our industry’s reputation and harms women’s self-esteem too, driving me to fight harder, fight longer," she wrote.

"Instead of asking you whether you are beach body ready, I’m asking you are you bias-battle ready? I know I am."

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