Just when you thought everyone in the advertising world got the memo that people don’t like to be body-shamed, a new ad in the London Tube system is stirring up some unfortunate and familiar reactions. Protein World, a brand that had already raised the ire of Londoners with a 2015 ad that effectively attempted to body-shame women, is at it again, with an advertisement featuring Khloé Kardashian. While the first offending ad asked passersby whether they were “Beach Body Ready,” this new version cuts to the quick with its query, “Can You Keep Up With a Kardashian?”
— Cordi Morrison (@CordiMo) February 10, 2017
The campaign features Kardashian in a variety of poses adorned in little more than leotards, all aimed at hawking the company’s protein supplement for weight loss. It is being featured prominently in London’s Underground system.
The company’s controversial beach body ads in 2015 led to a backlash including defaced billboards and outraged protesters gathering in London’s Hyde Park in bikinis — all to spotlight the message that they didn’t take kindly to a protein supplement company trying to dictate, decide, or design what’s a “beach body” and what’s not.
— ColletteLyons (@collette_lyons) April 27, 2015
???? phemur: Protein World’s ad campaign, which features a woman in a bikini and various products in the… https://t.co/zy60jwuQh8
— romeromanuel (@romeromanuel) July 1, 2016
Since that time, and partly because of Protein World’s beach body ads, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to combat sexist advertising in the capital’s transportation system. The mayor formed an official commission, called the Advertising Steering Group, to establish and maintain policy around these issues. The panel consists of transportation representatives and advertising executives.
As Khan stated in 2015, “Nobody should feel pressurized, 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.” This policy and attention was focused specifically on advertising in the Tube and on buses because of the fixed nature of these ads. An official representing London’s public transportation system pointed out, “Advertising on our network is unlike TV, online, and print media. Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them, and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment.”
All this makes Protein World’s newest foray into body-focused advertising a rather sensitive affair. Apparently, Khan’s new policy and steering group haven’t yet come into effect in any measurable way. The group hasn’t even met yet, according to the Evening Standard. And while critics of the ad campaign are calling on Khan to ban it, the original offending ads were not banned either.
Even though Protein World’s promotional material touts Khloé Kardashian as saying, “My biggest tip is not to compare yourself to anyone else’s body,” the advertising campaign asks viewers to do exactly that — compare their bodies with hers. Still, the negative publicity from the 2015 campaign reportedly brought in an additional 2 million pounds in sales (about $2.5 million in current dollars). The company even bragged about how the attention helped its efforts, describing a subsequent campaign expansion to the U.S. as a “big middle finger to everybody who bothered to sign that stupid petition in the U.K.,” said Richard Staveley, Protein World’s head of marketing. “It’s a fat F-U to them all. You could say that the London protesters helped pay for the New York campaign.”
It seems that short of banning the product and its advertising altogether, this latest controversy won’t do much to stop the brand from pushing its critics to … keep up.