It's not unusual to see advertisements that sexualize women and play up to gender stereotypes. So much so that Transport for London, the government agency responsibly for the city's public transportation, has been consistently criticized for its lax approach towards the ads on its network. This time, however, it seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction.
Tights company Heist Studios has blasted TfL's advertising rules after it was ordered to cover up a woman's back in its campaign image. In the original photograph, a topless dancer is shown from behind, leaping in the air in a pair of tights — a decidedly non-sexual pose. Men are often shown topless on the London Underground, but apparently female flesh is too controversial for public consumption.
Heist Studios revealed it was notified by Exterion Media, which holds the advertising contract for the Tube, stating that the brand "cannot run topless models on the Underground," despite the fact that no part of the model's chest is on display.
In an email to Edzard van der Wyck, the brand's creative director, released to the Evening Standard, an Exterion Media employee said: “Whilst I know this is only showing a bare back, it still depicts a ‘topless’ model. If we could add a boob tube around the back I think this would be passed.”
The advertising guidelines ban advertisements that show men, women, or children "in a sexual manner or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context." While underdressed people in most underwear ads may be considered appropriate, "gratuitous use of an overtly sexual nature will be unacceptable.”
Though Heist Studios complied with the request, it has since dubbed the regulations "bonkers." “We were told to cover up the offending area — her back. It’s bonkers," said Ellie Howard, its head of community. "We were very excited about sharing our image of a strong, female dancer wearing our tights, especially since women’s underwear ads are usually so heavily sexualized, but it seems that the back of a female dancer is unacceptable.”
Howard said the company was angry that its campaign image had been sexualized, when the intention was actually "to challenge the way that women are sexualized in underwear advertisements."
She told The Standard: “There are many male dancers on Tube ads who are topless and there are women in seductive poses and clothes, where there’s no agency, yet a muscly dancer’s back has to be covered. How on earth can we provide an alternative view of how women should be depicted in underwear if we can’t show it? We think there is something fundamentally wrong with how TfL is screening adverts.”
Heist Studios wasn't the only one baffled by Exterion Media's request, with some on Twitter deeming the fact that a back was considered offensive "madness."
TfL said it hadn't seen the ad first-hand but that Exterion Media enforces the rules on its behalf, The Standard reported. Following the worldwide backlash over Protein World's "beach body ready" campaign in 2015, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that advertisements that could cause body confidence issues would no longer be allowed on the network. So why has one that showcases women's athleticism been censored?