Pinterest, the online pin-board with more than 478 million users, has taken a bold step in becoming the first major social media network to ban weight loss adverts. While the company said the decision was to promote body acceptance, it reflects a wider trend of the changing, more socially conscious relationship between advertising platforms, brands and consumers.
Being highly visual, social media can be pernicious for body image because it exacerbates social comparisons, especially regarding attractiveness and fitness. The imagery of so-called “perfect” bodies is pervasive on social media and encourages people to over-scrutinise their bodies and faces. The more time people spend “living” in social media, the more likely they are to believe that it represents reality.
The issue of weight-loss advertising is indeed of grave concern for all members of society, especially for women and girls, at a time when child eating disorders have been increasing. As well as having alarming effects on women’s self-esteem and body image, objectified and stereotyped portrayals of women contribute to their devaluation in society.
Since 2019, new UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules have prohibited advertising that includes “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence”. However, “perfect” body imagery can be harmful to both men and women, so it does not fall directly under these standards.
Nevertheless, change is happening in the advertising industry, with more advertising that shows realistic body images, for example, the Sport England “This Girl Can” campaign.
My ongoing research indicates that advertising practitioners are becoming more aware that the imagery they use can have an effect on society.
Pinterest’s ban on weight loss ads is groundbreaking because it shows a consumer platform taking action to protect its reputation among consumers, despite being reliant on advertising revenues. Pinterest clearly understands that consumers, more than ever before, have greater expectations from brands to use advertising to shape social conversations.
This is one of the most public responses to the increasing pressure that brands are facing to become more socially responsible. The combination of consumer demand for socially conscious behaviour, and the viral attention to the controversy, means consumers have more power than ever to demand changes from brands.
Take, for example, the luxury exercise equipment brand Peloton. After an ad critic deemed sexist attracted negative attention on YouTube, the company was reported to have US$1.5 billion wiped from share value. The ad, viewed 2 million times, showed a woman using her exercise bike, a gift from her partner, to “give a gift back” to him (her “improved” body).
In early 2020, Kentucky Fried Chicken was forced to apologise to consumers for running an ad in Australia that was criticised as objectifying women, after it attracted fierce social media debate. When social media controversies are reported in the wider media, more consumers are exposed to negative perceptions, heightening the debate even further.
Research is now beginning to show the ways in which consumers subvert marketing messages online, drawing attention to some of the negative impacts of marketing and advertising. Research on consumer subversion describes how creative consumers threaten brands by generating their own spoofs of ads, for example, which may then be shared on social media. This is exactly what happened in the case of Peloton.
This happens not just with gender issues, but also with race and ethnicity, disability and ecological sustainability. When consumers turn promotions against firms, finding subversive meaning in ads, it can generate negative word of mouth, leading to adversarial relationships with consumers and ultimately damaging brand equity.
In our ongoing research at the University of Portsmouth, we are finding that consumers are increasingly voicing outrage online about advertising that offends their social consciousness. They use rhetoric to argue for a change in the marketplace and ultimately society. The wider media are often keen to report these social media debates, and when they do it has an accelerated effect on change.
In this shrewd decision, Pinterest is heading off future controversy. In order to mitigate negative effects and protect their own reputations, we advise that all brands and social media companies consider similar actions. Advertisers can begin to understand the issues that consumers see as irresponsible by scanning traditional media coverage of controversial advertising, like the Peloton and KFC examples.
The threat of consumer subversion of advertising means that other social media platforms could eventually follow Pinterest’s example. However, this often depends on the commitment of those at senior levels in these organisations to such issues.
Banning advertisements that promote weight loss, or other products that can be harmful to body image, self-worth and mental health, would be beneficial for media companies across the board. Such an approach would prevent short-term negative word of mouth outcomes, and in the longer term protect brand equity. More importantly, it would pave the way for advertising that is responsible as well as profitable.
Hopefully, this will lead to a future in which companies are more aware of growing social consciousness and the power consumers have online to make a difference.