Unilever’s Dove brand has escaped a battering by the ad watchdog over a campaign designed to combat body shaming, despite nearly 140 complaints that the activity was both irresponsible and distressing.
The campaign featured two ads, a full-length version and a cut-down one which ran on TV and video-on-demand. Devised by Ogilvy, they promoted Dove’s anti-body shaming initiative, the “Self-Esteem Project”.
The full-length version began with text that stated “Sensitive Content. The following film features real stories about body appearance that may be upsetting to some viewers”.
A home video of a young child reading was then shown before the ad cut to a screen that stated “Mary’s story”. Photos and home videos of Mary from childhood through to adolescence were shown, while a woman sang You Are So Beautiful.
The film included home videos of Mary’s birthdays, which seemed joyful until she was given her own smartphone. It then switched to various full body photos Mary had taken of herself in side profile, holding her arm over her stomach. It went on to show a number of social media posts, including a waist cincher, women with flat stomachs being “liked”, and a woman measuring her thigh with a tape measure.
These were followed by videos Mary had made of herself measuring her wrist with her finger and thumb and pinching the side of her waist, weighing herself on a set of scales, and portrait photos she had taken of herself in the mirror, followed by a photo of handwritten text that stated “look at yourself your gross ugly self”; and journal entries that included “today I overate at lunch”.
The film then showed videos of Mary in an Eating Disorder Unit with a hospital wristband and an intravenous drip, and a screen with the Dove logo and text that stated “The cost of toxic beauty content is greater than we think”. An older, but still youthful Mary was then shown and on-screen text stated “Mary In recovery from an eating disorder”.
Young women were then shown sitting and hugging a guardian while on-screen text stated their names and a mental health condition they were recovering from, including depression, self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety and body dysmorphia. On-screen text stated: “Social media is harming the mental health of 1 in 2 Kids. Join us to protect their mental health. 2023 Dove Self-Esteem Project Research for Kids Mental Health.”
However, the campaign did not go down well with many viewers, triggering 136 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.
Many challenged whether the ads were irresponsible and distressing, in particular to those affected by insecurities about their body image or those affected by an eating disorder; others challenged whether the ads were appropriate for children to see; and complainants challenged whether they were appropriate to be shown during Love Island on ITV2 and the VOD service ITVX.
In its defence, Unilever UK said it had a 20-year history in working to highlight issues that impacted self-esteem. Their latest campaign, which included the ads under investigation, aimed to raise awareness of the impact social media could have on mental health conditions such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
The company said it intended the ads to alert parents and young adults to the existence and potential consequences of that type of social media content, and to make people aware of where they could find support. It confirmed the ads had been scheduled not to appear before 9pm – or 6pm for the cutdown version, while Love Island was not targeted at children, and its content and themes were not appropriate for children, hence its post 9pm rating.
Unilever also consulted with a range of experts during the production of the ads to avoid presenting eating disorders in an irresponsible manner. In preparing the ads for broadcast in the UK, they consulted the Centre for Appearance Research, and past users of the Maudsley Hospital and King’s College London’s eating disorder support services to ensure they were comfortable with the ads.
Additionally, Unilever had consulted with Clearcast to ensure the warning was shown for an appropriate amount of time. Unilever said that after it had been informed of the ASA’s investigation it had reviewed the visibility of the content warning on the ad and increased its size to make it clearer.
The ASA’s ruling ran to nearly 1,000 words, clearing both ads on all counts.
In summary it stated: “We understood the intention of the ads was to raise awareness of the potential harm social media could cause to young people by promoting unhealthy and unrealistic body ideals, partly through showing recreated content that could encourage behaviours associated with eating disorders.
“The ads concluded by showing Mary and other young women in recovery, to highlight that support was available and recovery was possible. Ads also included information about organisations that could help with the featured conditions.
“However, the ads contained imagery that could resonate with behaviours associated with eating disorders, particularly in relation to viewers who had, or were recovering from, an eating disorder, and that the imagery could be distressing for viewers generally. We understood that Unilever, for that reason, following consultations with various experts, had included a content warning at the beginning of the ads.
“We considered the ads were unlikely to encourage or be understood as condoning harmful behaviour. Furthermore, while we acknowledged the subject matter could be difficult for members of the wider public to watch, we considered the context of the overall message, as raising awareness and promoting support, was likely to be understood.”
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