BANNED: women who look too young

The ASA’s censorship of an ad featuring a 23-year-old who ‘looks underage’ takes petty prudishness to a new low.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

The aspiration to look young and sexy is not a new phenomenon. Neither is the habit of fashion brands to reflect or play on this desire by using young models in their ads. It is not unusual for ad creators to airbrush wrinkles, cellulite, blemishes and other ‘imperfections’ off models in order to make them look like a picture of youthful perfection.

More than anyone, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – the UK watchdog that spends its time scouring ads and considering complaints from the public – should be used to this omnipresence of youthfulness and the underrepresentation of over-25s in the fashion industry. Yet now it has banned an ad by the clothing firm American Apparel because the featured, 23-year-old, model looks too young.

American Apparel is that worthy fashion brand that can be held responsible for the unfortunate return of Eighties-style leg warmers and body suits in blinding colours. It prides itself on being ‘anti-sweat shop’; its products are designed, manufactured and marketed from downtown Los Angeles, California (1). American Apparel has also boasted about using ‘real people’ in its ads and not Photoshopping their images. The models do their own hair and makeup and are often employees or friends of employees, which suggests that American Apparel staff and their mates are a pretty photogenic bunch (2).

A recent magazine ad for American Apparel’s Flex Fleece hooded top featured a series of six images of a young blonde-haired girl wearing minimal make-up and dressed in tight shorts and a black version of the fleece hoodie. In the sixth image, the model’s nipple was partially exposed. The ad campaign appeared in Vice magazine, which is aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds and is distributed for free in British bars, nightclubs and clothes shops. Now, the ASA has banned the ad, ruling that it ‘could be seen to sexualise a model who appeared to be a child’ and that it could potentially cause serious offence (3).

The ASA decided that ‘the photographs suggested that [the model] was stripping off for an amateur-style photo shoot’. According to American Apparel, the ad depicted a girl in a relaxed home environment and it conveyed how the hoodie is so soft it can be worn directly against the skin. The six different images also showed, said American Apparel, how the item can be used to create different looks. Presumably, the shot of the pouting blonde wearing glasses and flashing a nude thigh suggests how prospective buyers of the Flex Fleece hoodie can achieve the bookish sex-bomb look (4).

There is plenty of exposed skin and glints of nipples on the American Apparel website and throughout the world of fashion advertising. The American Apparel campaign is not the first to reference stripping or to suggest that a simple piece of clothing can make the wearer look and feel sexy or different. Neither of these aspects of the ad in themselves led the ASA to ban it. Rather, it was the fact that the model, according to the ASA ruling, appeared to be a child, that she looked like she was under 16 in some of the shots, which rendered it inappropriate. The fact that the American Apparel model is, in reality, a 23-year-old adult, and can perfectly legitimately work as a fashion model, doesn’t seem to matter here. Because someone might see the ad and think the girl is a teenager who perhaps is simulating stripping, the ASA has decided that it comes too dangerously close to sexualising children.

So far, the American Apparel Flex Fleece ad has only been published in Vice magazine, but if it was to spread, the ASA’s logic seems to go, it could be seen by people outside the 18-to-34 age group and in the watchdog’s mind these groups are populated by vulnerable, impressionable children and seedy, dirty-minded adults.

While the ASA noted that the nudity ‘was not so overly gratuitous as to make it unsuitable for or likely to cause serious or widespread offence to the target audience’, American Apparel has been banned from publishing the same advertisement again (5). This is completely in line with the ASA’s method of pre-emptive strikes; the watchdog has a tendency to ban ads that could be deemed potentially to cause offence to someone somewhere, even if only a tiny number of people have actually expressed dissatisfaction with the ad in question. Last year, for instance, the ASA upheld 23 complaints over an ad for a hairstyler because the ‘eroticised images’ were likely to ’cause serious offence, particularly to Christians’ (6).

The ban on the American Apparel ad is also completely in line with the watchdog’s prudish outlook, which it has revealed many times in the past. For instance, last winter a Ryanair ad, which showed a scantily-clad, Britney Spears-style schoolgirl next to the words ‘HOTTEST Back To School Fares’, was deemed likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’ after just 13 people complained (7).

This prudish, censorious, offence-avoiding outlook across advertising and media watchdogs has serious consequences for broadcasting and public space, which is increasingly being shaped around the small-mindedness of tiny minorities. These individuals and their protectors in the world of the watchdogs believe the rest of us are too vulnerable and impressionable to handle a bit of nude skin or religious gibes and that we can’t look at pictures of young and pretty models without feeling bad about ourselves or thinking dirty thoughts about children.

While there are plenty of examples of the ASA letting minority sensitivities and prudishness guide its rulings ever since it was set up by the advertising industry to police the rules laid down in advertising codes, the case of the American Apparel Flex Fleece ad takes pre-emptive censorship to a whole new level. Here, the ASA ruling is based on the watchdog second-guessing what people might think the ad shows, regardless of the facts of the matter. Because the 23-year-old girl, according to the ASA, could pass for 16 in parts of the ad, and because the ad could be interpreted to be sexually suggestive, it must be banned.

Of course, the fashion and advertising worlds have always conveyed images of glamour, beauty and desirability and there is often a discrepancy between appearances in advertising and the reality of everyday life. We all know that wearing a hoody might make us feel warm, but it won’t turn us into sex bombs, just as we know that doing the laundry is not a life-affirming experience, as many detergent ads seem to suggest, or that deodorants don’t turn women on.

What is apparent from the ruling on the American Apparel ad is that for some strangely oversensitive individuals and for the self-appointed moral custodians at the ASA, facts and reality do not matter, either. Instead, the spectre of paedophilia haunts their imaginations to such an extent that even a 23-year-old woman could be seen as a child in need of protection.

It is time to put an end to the oppressive regime of the offence-obsessed prudes and paternalists claiming to protect us all from ourselves.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill revealed the prudishness of the Advertising Standards Authority and explained why advertising is a free-speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Nathalie Rothschild looked at London Underground’s ban on posters for the play Fat Christ. Duleep Allirajah criticised the media reaction to a football celebration that no one complained about. Or read more at
spiked issue Free speech.

(1) See American Apparel’s company profile.

(2) American Apparel ad banned, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(3) American Apparel ad banned, Guardian, 2 September 2009

(4) See American Apparel ad banned, Guardian, 2 September 2009 and Semi-nude model ‘looked under 16’, BBC News 1 September 2009

(6) Hair prayer ads ruled ‘offensive’, BBC News, 12 March 2008

(7) Ryanair’s ‘Britney’ ad too hot for ASA, Guardian, 30 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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