Today's decision by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to ban one out of three poster ads for Calvin Klein underwear on the basis that it objectifies women is somewhat mystifying. At least, it is to me. 

Why? Because trying to be objective as possible, I can't see why any one of these ads is any better or worse than the other two in terms of objectification of women. So why not ban all of them? Or none of them? And given that there were only two complaints, they averaged less than one complaint per execution, so objectively speaking, why did the ASA even bother to investigate?

The complaints' concerns were that the imagery used in the three ads was overly sexualised,  and that they were “offensive and irresponsible, because they objectified women”, and “inappropriate for display in an untargeted medium”, i.e. out-of-home poster billboard ads.

Let's start by what seems to be the ad least likely to be objectively objectifying. It features Kendall Jenner lying on her back, topless with her hands covering her breasts:


The ASA concluded that “while the image did contain a degree of nudity, it did not focus on the model’s body more generally in a manner that portrayed her as a sexual object.”  It therefore did not objectify her. They went on to say that “all sensitive body areas were covered, and the image was no more than mildly sexual”, and so it was not unsuitable for a poster.  But is that right? Is Ms. Jenner any less objectified as a sex object in this ad than in the next one? To my mind, this is the most ‘’sexual" of the three images, and just as likely to be objectifying of women as the others. The complaints were not upheld in relation to this ad.

The second of the three ads also featured Kendall Jenner:

Oh, I say. This ad really is rather racy. I have to admit that I am struggling to come up with a defence for Mr. Klein on this one. If you told me that one of these three ads had crossed the line into objectification, then I would have guessed it was this one. But the ASA Council members must have iced water running through their veins, for they concluded “that this was likely to be interpreted as an ad for lingerie, given the prominence of the underwear Jenner wore in the image. Additionally, the level of nudity was not beyond that which people would expect for a lingerie ad.” 

This is the "Lingerie Defence” and it is rather important in this context. One of my early successes in defending ASA investigations was in the bra wars of the mid 1990's. I convinced the ASA that it was not merely permissible, but essential that the consumer had to be able to see the model's nipples in order to understand the soft and comfortable nature of the Gossard Glossies bra, in contrast with the re-enforced but uncomfortable “push-up” bra made famous by Eva Herzigova in the famous Hello Boys! ad for Wonderbra.  

It is interesting to note that back in 1996, this Gossard Glossies poster ad provoked 321 complaints to the ASA on the grounds that it was “sexist and offensive”, although some of those complaints were prompted by a commentator in a tabloid newspaper. Nevertheless, the ASA accepted that if you are going to advertise lingerie, you need to be able to show the lingerie in use on a beautiful model. The complaints were therefore not upheld and the Lingerie Defence was born.  

Which may explain why Calvin Klein came a cropper on this execution:

The images shows FKA Twigs, a famous singer, wearing a denim shirt but, according to the ASA, “leaving the side of her buttocks and half of one breast exposed”.  The clue is in the text at the top of the ad, which states “Calvins or nothing”. Clearly, she's chosen to go with nothing. But if you're going to run the Lingerie Defence there has to be some lingerie involved. You can't “go commando” and simultaneously run The Lingerie Defence. The two are mutually exclusive. 

So perhaps it's no surprise that the ASA came down hard on this execution. They concluded that “the image’s composition placed viewers’ focus on the model’s body rather than on the clothing being advertised. The ad used nudity and centred on FKA Twig’s physical features rather than the clothing, to the extent that it presented her as a stereotypical sexual object. We therefore concluded [that the ad] was irresponsible and likely to cause serious offence.” It's not even clear if the denim shirt is one sold by Calvin Klein, so its not surprising the ASA concluded that the focus was on her body, not the clothing.  The ASA went on to say, “Her nudity and facial expression, including a direct gaze and open mouth, gave the image an overall sexual overture. We therefore considered [that the ad] was overtly sexual and was not suitable for display in an untargeted medium.

And yet surely there is more to objectification that the amount of bare flesh on show? Is objectification, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder? On that basis, I would certainly have more concerns about the second of the three ads. Perhaps this just demonstrates that objectification cannot be objectively assessed, and therefore it shouldn't be assessed at all, because it just comes down to the subjective opinion of the ASA Council?