There has been a growing concern and increased scrutiny of the portrayal of body image in advertising within the UK. Dissatisfaction with body image is increasingly understood to link to a poorer quality of life, psychological distress and the risk of unhealthy eating behaviours and disorders. In view of recent political focus on efforts to take body image issues seriously, CAP and BCAP (the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice) are currently conducting a review on body image in advertising. The objective of the on-going review is to assess whether the current codes on advertising, and the ASA’s (Advertising Standards Authority) administration of those codes, sufficiently mitigate any related harms or if additional measures are required.

Advertising complaints which raise body image concerns have predominantly been dealt with under the broader advertising rules on social responsibility. The codes state that advertisers should ensure that they do not mislead consumers and that marketing communications are prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society. However, there are currently no specific rules relating to body image portrayal in advertising.

As part of their investigation, CAP and BCAP have found that stakeholders in the industry agree that there are significant concerns regarding the use of digital alteration techniques giving rise to related body image harms, particularly on social media.

Various measures have been raised and discussed in the review, including:

  • a prohibition on the use of digital alteration on images in ads, although it was noted that this
    would also prevent legitimate uses of such techniques for example for comedic or horror effect;
  • a requirement to label ads that feature altered body images. Current evidence suggests that such labels do not reduce the tendency in viewers to compare their own proportions to the models depicted and that those labels drew the viewer’s attention more closely to the digitally altered body proportions, which could lead to the opposite of the intended effect. On the basis of the available evidence, CAP and BCAP have said that they do not, at present, consider that a requirement to label ads would achieve the intended effect in mitigating potential harmful impact on viewers’ body image perception;
  • a threshold based digital alteration restriction prohibiting the use of significantly altered images that result in body image harms based on appearance discrimination such as weight, age or key facial and body features. A threshold could be straightforwardly defined; for example, a prohibition on the use of image-editing techniques in images that perpetuate harms based on wider societal appearance-based discrimination, such as weight stigma or colourism; and
  • voluntary action by the advertising industry and media owners for example by making changes to internal policies to no longer work with influencers who digitally alter their body proportions or using a more diverse range of body types in ads. It was noted that some stakeholders have already choosing to implement such policies with tangible results.

Impact on the fashion industry

CAP and BCAP intend to publish the full outcome of the body image review in Spring 2024. The outcome of this review will have particular relevance for fashion brands and retailers, many of whom use models and digital alteration techniques as part of their advertising campaigns.

While CAP and BCAP’s body image review is ongoing, the ASA has continued to regulate irresponsible ads that are likely to adversely impact consumers’ body image and take action where needed, through enforcement of existing protections offered by the codes. Fashion brands should be mindful of the existing rules and should take care not to exploit insecurities around body image in their advertising. Particular care should be taken to ensure that the use of image re-touching or filters does not give an unrealistic expectation of body image. The ASA has previously upheld a number of complaints related to potentially harmful body images on the basis of being misleading. For example, complaints about ads featuring models that were depicted as unhealthily thin with digitally altered waist lines that were not representative of their actual body shapes have been upheld.