January 10, 2024 - 6:30pm

Today the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) announced that it would be banning a Calvin Klein advertising campaign featuring singer FKA twigs. The agency said that the image was overly sexualised, offensive and irresponsible, objectified women, and centred on the model’s physical features rather than the clothing (is that not true of all adverts with models?) Similar complaints were also made about images featuring the supermodel Kendall Jenner but, somewhat bizarrely, the ASA dismissed these on the grounds Jenner was not portrayed as a “sexual object”.

The ASA’s decision is yet more proof that we live in an increasingly paradoxical world. On the one hand, we live in a world where two people — just two — can complain about an underwear advert featuring a semi-naked woman, and the ASA therefore rules that the poster (which is far from contentious or vulgar) is too risquĂ© to run. The ASA said the advert was inappropriate for display in a place where anyone (read: children and teenagers) could see them. Yet we also live in a world where, at the touch of a button, we have access to a Pandora’s box of inappropriate content. Over half of 11-16 year-olds have seen online pornography, the majority accidentally, and yet we worry about the impact of young people seeing a bit of a model’s sideboob?

Indeed, there does seem to be an increasing disconnect between the stringency of our advertising laws (drink responsibly, gamble responsibly, eat responsibly) and the Wild West of the online content that we are exposed to everyday. The ASA, rightly, wants to protect its audiences from harmful messages; for example, in 2015 it banned Protein World’s infamous “Are you beach body ready?” advert because of complaints about body shaming and diet culture.

Yet the ASA can’t protect people from the much more pernicious harms of online media. One “beach body ready” advert is a drop in the ocean of “thinspo” content on TikTok and Instagram. Everyday women, men, boys and girls are bombarded with “What I eat in a day” videos; body transformation before and afters; influencers promoting meal-replacement drinks and extreme diets or exercise regimes. In August last year a vegan influencer even died of starvation after eating nothing but raw tropical fruit, a diet she advocated to her tens of thousands of followers; this is far more concerning than anything the ASA is looking at.

In its quest to protect audiences, the ASA also perpetuates a strange double standard here. Just this week Calvin Klein launched an ad campaign featuring actor Jeremy Allen White, creating quite the online sensation. In the stills for the campaign he poses in a far more provocative way than FKA twigs — in one picture he is literally removing his underwear — and yet there are no complaints about what all the close-ups of his muscles and abs might be doing for male body image (despite the fact that body dysmorphia is on the rise in teenage boys). 

The ASA assumes that FKA twigs is somehow victimised and stereotyped, whereas Jeremy Allen White is empowered and inspiring. This is a dangerous assumption, but the more we try to censor some areas of society and ignore others, the more paradoxical our world becomes: both ever-more puritanical and pornographic.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.