On one level, today's decision by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority to uphold 5 complaints about two Facebook ads for fast fashion retailer Model Rocks seems pretty unremarkable. Both Facebook ads raised the same issue, which was whether the models were unhealthily thin. If so, the ads were therefore irresponsible and in breach of Rule 1.3 of the CAP Code, which states that marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. And by the way, 5 complaints about a couple of Facebook ads is a relatively high number, because generally Facebook users are slow to complain about these issues.
Motel Rocks is the trading name of Rustin and Mallory Wholesale Ltd, who effective admitted their guilt and told the ASA they'd removed the images. The ASA did not leave with it an 'informally resolved' decision, as the advertiser may have hoped, however, and produced a formal adjudication upholding the complaints. Why? Because in the ad with the model getting out of the car (illustrated below) her legs looked very thin, with her thighs appearing to be the same width as her lower leg. The lighting and pose made matters worse. The other ad gave rise to similar issues.
But if you dig a little deeper, this decision exposes a gap in our current system of advertising regulation, and one that does not look as though it is going to be addressed by the Draft Online Safety Bill. Rustin and Mallory were the subject of a very similar upheld complaint in January 2018, and seem to have used the same 'hit and run'. On that occasion, having been challenged by the ASA, they also offered to remove the 4 offending images. It is clear, however, that the lesson they learned in 2018 was not to avoid using models who are too thin, but simply to offer to remove the ads as soon as an ASA complaint is received.
Part of the problem is that this is not an issue of not false or misleading advertising. The CAP Code is therefore not underpinned by the Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 and there is no backstop regulator who can take legal action if the advertiser chooses to play cat and mouse with the ASA. And yet the damage caused to young people by the perpetuation of these images online is both obvious and serious. The use of unhealthily thin models and the glamorisation of 'anorexia chic' is not one of the harms identified in the Online Harms White Paper, the pre-cursor to the Draft Online Safely Bill, although the list of harms set out in the White Paper is expressed to be "neither exhaustive nor fixed".
It may be that legislation is not the most effective way to tackle this issue, and it is clear that many advertisers are taking more care to avoid using models who will glamorise the image of anorexia in the minds of young people, particularly young women. However, we must all know at least one family that have been touched by this issue, and either the ASA or the legal system need to find a way to tackle those advertisers that want to exploit the existing regulatory gap.
In the meantime, we're all free to avoid shopping at Motel Rocks, just as we avoided American Apparel. And look what happened to them.
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