Whilst a great deal of advertisers’ efforts go unnoticed by an indifferent public, occasionally a campaign breaks through. But not always in a good way.
Protein World’s poster campaign on the London Underground has been unmissable this spring, with its vibrant yellow (yes, thanks a bunch for stealing the Yellowfinch brand colours!), its striking model and most of all its controversial headline, “Are you beach body ready?” slapped in aggressive capitals across the poster’s expanse.
Some brands seek controversy and a desire to shock, but it is clear that the backlash took Protein World, and indeed several commentators, by surprise. After all, it’s not the first time a woman has appeared in a bikini to sell a diet product at the onset of summer. There have certainly been more provocative shots and salacious messages out in the public advertising domain. Even the headline is a clichéd staple of women’s magazines the world over.
But a backlash there has been all right and one that feels rather delicious. There is nothing that consumers enjoy more than hitting back against the big guys and for a blow to strike home. It has been Protein World’s bad timing to adopt a stance that has just about had its day. After a century of advertising playing subtlely (or not so subtlely) on women’s insecurity about their appearance, their ad was released at the very moment tipping point was reached.
A groundswell of opinion has reached the mainstream, where women feel that they should be celebrated for more than their appearance and increasingly resent an attempt to make them feel inadequate about their appearance, especially when the aesthetic ideal is unachievable. Body shaming has had its day, at least for now.
The old formula of create-a-problem-then-solve-a-problem will be with us for a long while to come (is your toilet really clean, does your skin show its age, does your car let you down?), but if that problem is rumbled by the public as being a sham and a nasty one at that, then the advertising has not only failed, but damaged the brand.
What can we say in the campaign’s defence? It deserves no points for gaining profile through controversy, as it seems unlikely it knew it was being offensive. Deliberate controversy is a tricky one to pull off and can backfire. The desired viral effect relies on a genuine consumer response and people are wise to manufactured gimmicks.
Even evaluating it in feminist terms, actually there’s plenty worse. Protein World may have picked the wrong headline and sentiment at the wrong time. But their model is striking a defiant, bold pose. Admittedly, her eyes are seductively hooded and her mouth is, as ever with women in advertising, suggestively open. She is clearly ready for more than just the beach. Some people have seen this confrontational pose as part of the campaign’s offensiveness, as if the model herself were demanding we take up her challenge, much in the spirit of “Your Country Needs You”. But in an advertising world filled with women with tilted heads, wet lips and submissive body language, a proud independent pose is rather welcome.
But Protein World is unlikely to be targeting the women who reject the crusade for body perfection, instead seeing plenty of profit in targeting the woman who wants to look her best, who puts time, effort and money into her health and appearance and, moreover, sees no shame in this whatsoever. At a hunch, it’s likely that the committed gym-goer would respond well to a bold approach in both words and imagery: tonally, this ad feels spot-on for the target. If the campaign has raised brand awareness with this particular sector, then job done. After all, if your ad is trying to target everybody, the chances are that’s not striking a chord with anybody.
The main thing that can be said in its defence is, in the end, the only thing that matters. Coverage of the backlash (yes, I’m guilty!) has apparently boosted direct sales revenue by £1m over the last few days. The diet world is hugely competitive and this is a campaign with massive stand-out. For a poster campaign that cost just £250,000 from a company just 18 months old, I don’t think that Protein World has too many regrets. Am I alone in wondering what ad they’ll run next?