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Body image portrayal in advertising

Posted on 1 November 2021

CAP and BCAP (the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice) have announced a call for evidence to assist in their regulation of adverts which cause potential harms relating to body image concerns. This announcement comes amid increased scrutiny and awareness of body image within advertising within the UK. Whilst action to redress potential harms from body image portrayal in advertising is welcome, if further rules are implemented following this review, these are likely to particularly impact advertising in the beauty sector. In the meantime, beauty and cosmetics firms should continue to be mindful of body image portrayal in their advertising content, including on social media.

Policy background

Advertising complaints which raise body image concerns have been predominantly dealt with under broader rules on social responsibility, such as the rule that "Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society" (CAP Code rule 1.3 and BCAP Code rule 1.2).  For example, adverts for cosmetic surgery have previously been found to breach this rule on the basis that they exploit individuals' insecurities, particularly by portraying people who are happy or confident as a result of cosmetic surgery.  Complaints have also been upheld against adverts featuring overly thin models which glamourize being unhealthily underweight and against adverts showing significantly re-touched images, on the basis that they are misleading. 

More recently, advertising complaints relating to body imagery have also been dealt with under the remit of rules relating to gender stereotyping.  Following a consultation in 2017, CAP and BCAP introduced the rule that "Marketing communications must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence" (CAP Code rule 4.9 and BCAP Code rule 4.14). CAP's accompanying guidance confirmed that this rule applies to adverts promoting unrealistic body-imagery, and that adverts "should take care to avoid suggesting that an individual’s happiness or emotional wellbeing should depend on conforming to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features".

Additionally there are existing rules restricting the placement and scheduling of adverts for weight control and slimming products and services (CAP Code rule 13.3 and BCAP Code rules 12.5 and 32.2). In September 2020, CAP and BCAP also conducted a consultation on the placement and scheduling of adverts for cosmetic interventions; the results are awaited. However, there are currently no specific rules relating to body image portrayal in advertising.  

Increased scrutiny on body image concerns

This announcement comes at a time of increased scrutiny of body imagery concerns in the UK. In March 2020, the Women and Equalities Select Committee launched an inquiry into this area. It sought to examine the causes and impact of poor body image, including the impact on physical and mental health, and considered how body image perceptions can be impacted by companies, media consumption, advertising and Government policy. The report revealed that women, people with disabilities and transgender people are at higher risk of experiencing negative emotions around their appearance. It also found that body image dissatisfaction in both adults and young people had been exacerbated as a result of increased consumption of media and exposure to adverts for products with the purposes of changing a person’s appearance, especially weight loss products, during Covid-19 lockdown.  

In September 2020 a Private Members’ Bill was introduced which would require advertisers, broadcasters and publishers "to display a logo in cases where an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions, and for connected purposes". The Bill is currently awaiting its Second Reading in the House of Commons; further developments are awaited. Furthermore the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a report into the different categories of harm that could arise from online advertising, which identified that mental health issues resulting from the portrayal of idealistic body images are an emerging area of concern.

In the light of this research and political context, CAP and BCAP are assessing whether the current provisions are effective in addressing body image related harms arising from advertising. They are therefore requesting the following types of evidence (the consultation closes on 13 January 2022):

  • Types and themes of ad content that give rise to body image concerns.
  • Impact of advertising on self-perception of body image experienced by different audience groups.
  • Impact of social media advertising, including influencer marketing, on body image concerns, in light of increased online media use.
  • Potential impact of advertising content for specific product sectors (for example, cosmetic interventions, weight control and reduction, beauty and cosmetics).
  • Positive impact of advertising on consumers' body image perceptions.

Impact on the beauty industry

This call for evidence is likely to signal increased restrictions on adverts that may cause harms relating to body image concerns. Any measures to redress harms to vulnerable consumers should of course be welcomed, but the advertising content of beauty and cosmetics brands is likely to be under increased scrutiny.

Even under existing rules, brands should be mindful of their responsibility to consumers, and should take care not to exploit insecurities around body image in their advertising. Particular care should be taken to ensure that the use of image re-touching or filters does not give an unrealistic expectation. Particular care should also be taken in relation to adverts promoting weight loss or appearance-altering products, or goods and services which are targeted at young people and other vulnerable groups. More generally, adverts should be designed so as not to promote idealised and unrealistic expectations.  Advertising campaigns which champion diversity in gender, age, ethnicity, body shape, disability, sexuality and in other ways are less likely to be the subject of complaint. 

CAP and BCAP are likely to consider this issue in the context of increased advertising on social media, especially through influencers. The rules on clearly marking paid advertisers are well documented (see our report here).  However images of unrealistic re-touched images may be more impactful when posted by 'real' people who known to the consumer rather than anonymised models on traditional advertising channels. We can expect increased scrutiny in this area, for example on the use of filters by influencers.

Brands which believe their advertising content has a positive impact on consumers' body image perceptions may wish to submit evidence.  Details of how to do so can be found here

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