About that Protein World advert…(an open letter to James O’Brien)

cross-posted from The Joy in my feetimage

An open letter to James O’Brien,

In the last week almost 60,000 individuals signed a petition to have Protein World’s now infamous yellow bikini advert, used to sell food-replacement shakes, taken down from London public transport outlets. In light of this much reported petition and the upcoming Taking Back the Beach protest planned for Saturday afternoon, you used your Wednesday afternoon LBC radio show to ask listeners what all the fuss is about with this advert. In light of a widespread consumerist culture in which unattainable body images sneer down at us at every angle in almost every public space, what is it about this particular advert which has caused so much offence? The problem, one of your listeners volunteered, is simply that hard-core feminists are getting their knickers in a twist. This is because, another suggested, we live in such a politically correct society these days, that fat people just can’t stand being told that they need to lose some weight. Jealousy is SO unattractive.

Listening to your show at my office when I should have been working, I couldn’t very well call up to provide an answer to your very reasonable question and so, in an attempt to clarify where your callers completely missed the point, I am addressing this open letter to you.

The problem with the advert is not with the photograph of the model in a bikini, oozing unrealistic sex-appeal and making us all feel bad with the way we look on the way to work, when we’ve barely had enough time to brush our hair and wipe the toothpaste from our mouths let alone hit the gym. We’ve seen these images before. We’ve seen this model before. We all know that adverts make people feel pretty lousy; one of your listeners, in fact, wrote in about the mental health implications that pressures to appear ‘macho’ have on men. He was right to raise this. Presumably this listener is also aware that eating disorders are one of the leading causes of ill health for teenage girls. Perhaps he read the research that the number one wish for girls aged 11 – 17 is to be thinner.

No, the problem is not the image, and it’s not even the particularly intense visuals of the image – in blazing yellow, this giant woman glaring down at us like some sort of fantasy Godzilla reeking havoc and judgement wherever she goes. No, the problem with this advert is the tagline that accompanies this image and what this says about the role of women in public space. By asking “Are you beach body ready?” the question this advert puts to women is this: do you have a body deemed by mainstream western notions of female beauty to be sexually attractive enough so as to be aesthetically pleasing to men when on the beach? If not, buy our product or else do not come to the beach.

Do you think that this is a leap to go from the advert’s tagline to the message to women to kindly leave their not-beach-ready bodies at home on the sofa where they belong? Because this is certainly the message that a very large number of women take home and this was certainly the conclusion drawn in a large global study conducted by Girl Guiding and Dove, which revealed that two-thirds of women and girls have avoided actually going out and doing certain activities because they feel bad about their bodies (including, incidentally, 29% who do not go to the beach or pool for this very reason). The CEO of Protein World himself certainly knows that women often feel uncomfortable occupying public space without first altering their appearance; this is what sells his product.

Sure, ok, men don’t just roll out of bed in the morning and out on to the street and, sure, ok, they are made to feel ugly too. But considering the fact that the women who are shown in the media are almost entirely models posing for the benefit of the viewer, whereas the men we see are primarily politicians, business leaders, and sports professionals actually doing stuff, what this says about women specifically is that their primary role in public space is to serve as a sex object.

The reason, then, that feminists are *quote* getting their knickers in a twist *end quote* about this advert in particular is because this is the advert which makes explicit the link between female attractiveness and a woman’s right to occupy public space. It is a) this relationship between women’s subjective sexual attractiveness and public space that is problematic, and this is b) particularly problematic because it feeds into a continuum of violence against women and girls. In government-commissioned research it was made explicit that if boys grow up being repeatedly told by advertisements like this that women’s primary role in public is to provide for their sexual gratification, they are more likely to engage in aggressive and violent behaviour towards women and girls.

Sexual harassment and assault in public is a grave issue in our society. Of the 1 in 5 women who will experience a sexual offence in her lifetime, a significant portion of these offences will take place in public. The British Transport Police estimate that 15% of Londoners have experienced unwanted, intimidating, and threatening sexual behaviour on the city’s transport network, and I’m willing to bet that this problem is even worse than these stats suggest. I do not know a single female friend who has not at some point in her life been subject to sexual harassment or assault ranging, in the  collective experiences of my friendship group, from cat-calling, jeering, and verbal abuse right through to inappropriate touching (and I am using this term euphemistically), being masturbated over, and being pissed on.

I am sure that you, as much as I, want this kind of behaviour to stop, and we can make a start by taking that bloody poster down.

The Joy in my Feet: Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, my blog The Joy in My Feet is about celebrating the work of women activists and artists around the world campaigning to end gender oppression. I am an intern with Equality Now working on a campaign to end FGM in the UK, so most of the posts you’ll find are covering current issues of sexual or gender based violence against women, interspersed with poetry and art.

Unilever’s Project Sunlight: PR & Cognitive Dissonance by @elizabethethird

(Cross-posted from Elizabeth the Third)

As most narratives do, it starts with a question. Luckily, we only have to wait about four minutes to find out the answer. But if we are astute and attuned enough, whether consciously or not, we already know the answer.

I cannot watch this advert without crying; mainly because the song they’ve used, a piano cover of The Pixies’ Where is My Mind (that I suspect they used science to engineer for emotional assassination) holds particular significance for me. Were this an advert for Cillit Bang Brought to You by Barry Scott, I would still have to bite back tears each time the opening was forced upon me via the YouTube videos I intend to watch. Quite apart from this historical broker between that music and my tearducts, this advert works. Very well, and on several levels.


The programmed sadness felt at seeing the opening images of global conflict reflecting the slogan “Why bring a child into this world?” is matched only by the cognitive dissonance that this produces; sadness meeting the typhoon of anger, frustration and desperation created by “Project Sunlight.”


Why bring a child into this world?  Because, Unilever.


Here is Project Sunlight’s ‘message’, delivered with gravitas by its earnest narrator:


Maybe there’s something you should know about the world in which your child will live.

Something real.

Something that’s already happening.

Every day, more and more food is being grown with a revolutionary new method: care.

And new technologies will make clean drinking water available to hundreds of millions.

So this will probably be the famous water wall they speak so much about.

And illnesses that today affect millions of children a year will be prevented with simple, everyday products.

Your child could have more possibilities of having a healthier heart than any living person today.

And the same chance of a broken heart. No one can escape that.

But we have no doubt about one this: they’ll always have a tree in which to hide and cry.

And by the time they find the right person, our children will have better chances of meeting their great-grandchildren than we ever did.

Breathe calmly. Bring your child into this world.

There has never been a better time to create a bright future for everyone on the planet.

For those yet to come.


In text it looks bland and unconvincing, but to music, and over images of pregnant women and crying fathers, thirsty children and war, the mind and soul are wrung out to exhaustion. It’s enough to make you want to forget it all with a cup of PG Tips or some Hellman’s mayonnaise, safe in the knowledge that “something’s already happening” (and your money contributed to it. You’re part of the solution, the wise-choice-making legion.)


My immediate response before the Skip Ad button was cynicism, and so I didn’t watch the advert until after about a week of them trying to shove it down my senses. But once I’d seen it through (thinking perhaps it might spur a good article,) a sense of guilt formed. The best of humanity; curiosity, hope, need, striving; has been so skillfully employed that the philosophical quandary (that I’m going to call the Bernays Mind Fondle) becomes almost unrecognizable. How can we criticize a company that gives us hope, that wants a better future for our children, that is optimistic, that engages with everything that WE want?


The message Unilever has co-opted – that we all play a part in changing the present and thus the future for our fellow beings – is undeniable. It is something that I often shove into others’ senses during heated discussion; what, for example, is the good of revolutionising our society or overthrowing our governments if we can’t acknowledge and understand our own basic dynamics, our abusive and corrupt relationships with each other? Each one of us needs to make better choices at an individual level. (Where, exactly, is the most complex and worthwhile part.)


The point remains. And those tricksy bastards have utilized the daylights out of it. I’m certain that they believe themselves, that they honestly buy their own message. Maybe that is really all they see, maybe there isn’t a fat, rich Unilever CEO cackling within an editing suite that looks like the Crystal Maze’s Crystal Dome, full of red, glinting fifties dancing around him. Maybe.


What information does Unilever give us to back up their claim of “no doubt that we’ll always have trees to hide and cry in?” That technology will be able to manufacture an abundance of the clean water we are running out of? What do Unilever have to say about increasing economic inequality and environmental destruction and intrinsical global corporate crime? What exactly is their five-year-plan for tackling these threats to our present and future?


Unilever isn’t inspiring hope and change, it’s selling us Unilever products, all of which can be found on the Project Sunlight page with blurb on how each Walls’ ice cream is stemming the tide of poverty and each spread of Flora decreasing the use of rape as a weapon of war. Every corporation is obliged to make a profit for its shareholders. Before anyone else’s well being, including that of its shareholders and its shareholders’ potentially thirsty, poverty-stricken grandchildren, it is required to make some people some money this quarter.


The site displays a counter of over 50 million ‘Acts of Sunlight’ performed to date. What are these wonderful acts that will bolster life for our children’s children’s children’s children? It’s the tweets what people’ve twotten, tagging #brightfuture and #projectsunlight…including one from Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. While promoting the Project she wears @LoreeRodkin jewellery and #captoepodium pumps.


For how long can well chosen music and PR strategy fool us into believing that ‘everything will be alright’ as long as we understand that Unilever and its counterparts know best? That we just need to get it into our stressed-out minds that we can trust them and we should leave it up to the well-intending, green-washed corporations to take the lead on all global decisions and power play? It’s a diversion that has worked pretty well so far. We, of course, need to take action, be more responsible for what we do, and make significant, radical changes to protect and prevent and build something new. But we each need to engage in this in our own relevant but personal way, always remembering that the personal is political. Real change can’t be achieved by the likes of Project Sunlight, so the sooner we galvanise our alternative projects, the better.


Elizabeth The Third Articles by elizabeththethird about the politics of the media. Often feminist readings of culture and communication, but also general reflections and critiques on the workings of our cultural landscape. Follow @elizabethethird