Ever heard of a brand called Protein World? They’re a UK-based retail brand that sells non-GMO, low calorie weight loss and protein supplements. If you’ve heard of them, you may have noticed a fair share of controversy around the way Protein World pushes their product.
Controversial billboard ad
Months before the summer of 2015, Protein World placed Australian Model Renee Somerfield’s slim figure on billboards throughout London and New York, asking viewers if they were “beach body ready.”
For those who don’t see how this ad could be seen as controversial, the public backlash says it all. The hashtag #EeachBodysReady overflowed from Twitter to the billboards as people complained about Protein World subjecting women to a certain body type.
The people’s response
The Advertising Standard Authority (ASA), the UK’s advertising watchdog, concluded that “the headline and the image were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offense.” Of course, they were wrong. People vandalized and photographed the billboards in all sorts of ways, expressing their discontent with the “unobtainable” body image.
Petitions have been signed against Protein World’s adverts on multiple occasions, accusing the company of promoting “sexist” and “offensive” messaging. This petition in particular grew to well over 70,000 signatures. Tweets went viral of people posing in front of the ad in bikinis to show that all bodies are ready for the beach.
It wasn’t just Protein World that caught all of the heat for this advert. Renee Somerfield was targeted by outraged fans because of her body. Because of this, Somerfield argues that the protest was “contradictory” because they themselves are the ones body shaming. In other words, claiming Somerfield’s body is wrong and “oppresses women” is an effort to shame her body.
So, one side is saying that it’s okay to look different than the Australian model while the other side is saying that it’s okay to look just like the Australian model. Okay, this sounds like a lot of whining and a lot of fingers being pointed over just one ad campaign.
Regardless, this goes to show how much of an effect marketing can have on society.
Simply Be, a brand of plus-size clothes, and other companies like Dove and Swimsuits For All took this as an opportunity to leverage the popularity of the controversial ad and use it to their advantage. They put out campaigns that mimicked the same imagery as Protein World’s advert except with bigger, more “real” women.
Protein World’s response
Protein World doesn’t hold back when it comes to dealing with people who have a problem with their adverts. They use sarcastic emojis and are outwardly unsympathetic on Twitter, tweeting replies like “why make your insecurities our problem” or “here’s a shoulder to cry on.” This is a great way to lose the respect of the people concerned. But does that matter? Protein World doesn’t seem to think their respect is necessary.
While haters see these sorts of responses wildly inappropriate, this is the sort of online behavior that other bystanders or Protein World advocates might find entertaining. (Personally, I love spectating Twitter beef).
In response to a question from a Sky News reporter about these “controversial” tweets, Richard Staveley, head of marketing at Protein World until 2016, said that, “we’ve created a brand with a real personality – we’re not a faceless corporation. There will be times where that sails quite close to the wind… but I certainly don’t regret any of the approach we take.” We all learned how effective a strong Twitter personality can be after the presidential campaign last year.
However negative it may be, the boosted exposure contributed to $1.5 million in sales from this campaign. That’s over double their return on investment. To no surprise, Staveley thinks that all of this negative PR is “fantastic.” No doubt he’s on board with the everlasting theory that all PR is good PR.
If so many people have a problem with this, then how are Protein World’s sales performing so well? In the same interview, Staveley notes that out of a 300,000 customer base, 84% are women. They spoke to a large correction of our female customer base and asked them what they wanted to see, what motivated them, and this is exactly what they wanted to see – an “aspirational” figure. This is a great examples of how properly assessing your customer data leads to higher sales.
Digital could have hurt less feelings
This sort of marketing has been going on for a while. How is this any different than those television ads with terrible before/after pictures, or those cheesy exercise videos that my parents used to watch on VHS? There’s even YouTube videos that are meant to motivate you to work using a variety of techniques, and “aspirational” figures is one of them.
The reason adverts like this are more controversial is because they are out in the most public spaces where everyone is exposed to them. People are comfortable with a motivational workout video in their home or in the gym, but not on their way to work. Rather than placing the ads on billboards, using digital media channels to promote Protein World’s campaign, if done well, could eradicate the advert’s negative social response.
Detailed customer data could be used to target individuals who are not just unlikely to be offended by Renee Somerfield’s physique, but who are motivated by it. On the contrary, viewership of the ad can people who don’t want to see the beach body message. Furthermore, they could reach people from all around the world instead of just London and New York only to have poorly-intended exposure carry out the rest of your message.
In a Utilitarian sense, one that considers the best outcome for every party, the best course of action for Protein World would have been to choose digital promotional channels instead of traditional billboard ads.
The obvious benefits of the billboard campaign are that it drove $1.5 million is sales, it gave a certain number of consumers what they wanted, it promotes exercise and a healthy lifestyle, and Protein World received an enormous amount of PR – for better or for worse.
The obvious disadvantages of the billboard campaign are that it caused a lot of people to feel insecure about the way they look and objectifies what a beach body should look like. So would using digital channels to promote the Beach Body Ready campaign be better for all parties involved?
The amount of people that are offended by the ad would decrease heavily, along with the boosted exposure. While the additional reach of the campaign contributed to company sales, they still would have done fine without it. Therefore, this is a big benefit in choosing digital over traditional.
If this ad were to be delivered digitally, and only to a specific audience, then the negativity surrounding Renee Somerfield, Protein World’s tweets, and the rest of the bad PR would be removed from the situation, and thus the marketing environment would be more peaceful place.