The ASA, Calvin Klein and FKA Twigs – the naked truth on the regulator's U-turn

12 minute read
20 March 2024

In January 2024, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against a Calvin Klein advert featuring FKA Twigs as part of its 'Calvins or nothing' campaign. The ASA felt the advert focused on FKA Twigs' nudity and presented her as a "stereotypical sexual object" in a way that was likely to cause serious or widespread offence. 

If you attended our AD:Vice Squad seminar in January, you will recall we discussed that there was significant backlash from this ruling – not least from FKA Twigs herself. 

The ASA has now amended the ruling, reversing its decision and finding – contrary to what it said just a few weeks ago – that the advert is not likely to be seen as irresponsible or cause serious or widespread offence. FKA Twigs is described not as a "stereotypical sex object" but as "a woman who appeared to be confident and in control". 

The ASA maintained its view that the image was "overtly sexual" and, therefore, was not suitable for display in an untargeted medium, which could be seen by children.

This revised ruling is significant for a number of reasons.

  • The ASA has stated in a press release that it is "not deaf to the commentary that surrounds [its] decision making" and is "genuinely interested in hearing what people think and have to say". It maintains that the criticism generated by the original ruling is not the reason for the about-turn, claiming that it simply felt uneasy about its rationale for the original decision. While that may be true, it seems unconvincing to seek to separate the new decision from the public backlash. There is a risk that a dangerous precedent has been set: will advertisers revert back to the regulator and cast doubt on its decisions whenever a ruling generates social media criticism? Will others seek to stoke that backlash? What happens where a campaign does cause widespread offence, but its defenders are more vocal than its detractors?
  • Where complaints are made in relation to harm or offence, the ASA's decision-making is, inevitably, somewhat subjective. The best advertisers can hope for is a level of consistency.  While it is arguably a good thing that the ASA is willing to reconsider its position to better reflect current societal standards, the speed at which it has backtracked in this case creates a lot of uncertainty. If the regulator itself cannot decide whether an ad depicts a woman as a "stereotypical sex object" or as "confident and in control", then how can advertisers be expected to assess the risk? 
  • The original ruling used inflammatory language ("stereotypical sex object") in a way that was unwise. It also raised questions over why the image of FKA Twigs was considered "overtly sexual" and to present her as a "stereotypical sexual object", while an image of Kendall Jenner, forming part of the same campaign, was considered no more than "sexually suggestive" and [only] "likely to be interpreted as an ad for lingerie". That said, the ASA did also point out that "the [FKA Twigs] ad used nudity and centred on FKA Twigs' physical features rather than the clothing", which seems unarguable. The nudity is also unnecessary in the context of the product, which is a shirt, rather than lingerie. So, is it now acceptable to take this approach in advertising? Thankfully, it seems inconceivable that the ASA would adopt the same stance if the ad were for a car, a cereal bar or (worse) a power tool. But should brands have greater room to include arguably gratuitous nudity in their advertising, simply because they are in the fashion industry, or have a particular brand heritage, or have high production values that appeal to models and celebrities?
  • Overall, the ASA appears to be reverting to its historic position: instead of ruling that an advert objectifies women in a way that is offensive, it is relying on the (less controversial) rules around ad targeting, implying that nudity such as this is acceptable in advertising, so long as children are not exposed to it.

The campaign

In April 2023, Calvin Klein launched new posters as part of its 'Calvins or nothing' campaign. 

The first of these was a poster which featured FKA Twigs. She wore a denim shirt but was otherwise unclothed and the side of her breast and bottom were exposed.

There were also two posters featuring Kendall Jenner. The first featured Kendall lying on her back with her hips raised. She was wearing a pair of jeans and had crossed arms which covered her (naked) chest. The second showed Kendall in underwear, with her jeans lowered around her hips.

In all three images, the text 'Calvins or nothing' was superimposed.

These images were in keeping with other Calvin Klein campaigns (including those involving Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg through to Justin Bieber). Calvin Klein is – of course – a brand that is well known for running these kinds of campaigns and powerful images of this nature have become part of the brand's identity and heritage. This was pointed to in Calvin Klein's response to the initial complaint.

The ASA's initial ruling

In January 2024, the ASA ruled that the FKA Twigs advert placed the focus on FKA Twigs' body rather than on the clothing. It felt that her nudity was gratuitous and, therefore, the image presented her as a "stereotypical sexual object", which was considered irresponsible and likely to cause serious or widespread offence.

In contrast, despite Kendall Jenner also being scantily clad, the ASA considered that the images featuring her did not objectify women in the same way and the complaints against these ads were not upheld on the grounds of responsibility or offence. While it was noted that the Kendall Jenner jeans ad included a degree of nudity, the ASA noted that the ad did not focus on her body in a way that portrayed her as a sexual object. The level of nudity in the underwear ad was considered to be "not beyond that which people would expect for a lingerie ad".

The backlash

The ASA's decision was incredibly controversial (not least within our team, where views differ) and commentators were quick to raise concerns. 

Most compellingly, FKA Twigs released a powerful statement on Instagram, which included: "I do not see the 'stereotypical sexual object' that they have labelled me. I see a beautiful strong woman of colour whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine."

There were concerns that the ruling exhibits double standards when compared to the other parts of the campaign:

  • at the time of the ruling, other Calvin Klein advertising featuring the actor Jeremy Allen White broke; Jeremy was shown in boxers with jeans around his hips and a sexual expression.  It was felt that if FKA Twigs was objectified, surely Jeremy was too? FKA Twigs alluded to this as double standards in her Instagram post; and
  • there were allegations levied against the ASA that race played a part in its original decision – why were the Kendall Jenner adverts that formed part of the complaint acceptable?

The revised ruling

In revising its ruling, the ASA has – seemingly – responded to the backlash and "external criticism".  The ASA noted that this "gave [them] pause for thought" but state this is not the reason for the revised ruling – which, instead, it claims stems from its unease about the wording in the original ruling which explained the rationale for the decision and its inconsistent (and, therefore, flawed) treatment of the three posters.

The revised ruling, published on 6 March 2024, does not uphold the complaints that the FKA Twigs advert was offensive and irresponsible on the basis that it objectifies her. Instead, the ASA considers that while the advert is overtly sexual, it is not sexually explicit. The image presents a woman as "confident and in control" (i.e. not objectified as a stereotypical sexual object).

The ASA remains strong in its view that the advert was "overtly sexual" (due to FKA Twigs' seductive gaze, pouting lips, position of the shirt revealing the side of her breast and bottom) and, therefore, not suitable for display in an untargeted medium.

The ASA maintained its position in respect of the Kendall Jenner adverts. In the first ad, where Kendall is shown lying on her back with her hips raised, wearing a pair of jeans with crossed arms: this was considered "no more than mildly sexual", as despite her seductive facial expression, the positioning of her arms meant that her nudity was not prominent. 

In respect of the second which showed Kendall in underwear, with her jeans lowered around her hips, this was considered "sexually suggestive". This, therefore, required a placement restriction to limit the likelihood of children viewing them (e.g. they should not appear within 100m of schools). 

Key points to consider

  • The ASA's rules around harm and offence are subjective. The line between what is sexually explicit or objectification (and, therefore irresponsible or offensive) versus overtly sexual, sexually suggestive, etc. is increasingly blurred, leading to uncertainty. The ASA has made it clear it will consider these complaints on a case-by-case basis and we recommend involving people from different backgrounds in the finalisation of assets for a view on the likelihood of causing harm and offence.
  • The ASA has a focus on the protection of children – therefore, brands need to prepare ads with a sense of responsibility. Be mindful of the impact your ads might have and consider whether or not they are appropriate for untargeted media.
  • When on the receiving end of these complaints, advertisers may wish to make feedback from models involved in campaigns, social media users etc. a more central part of their defence. The ASA has shown that it can be swayed and is likely to be sensitive to the risk of further backlashes.

If you would like to discuss this revised ruling or to talk through any of your organisation's current or proposed messaging, please contact Dan Smith, Kate Hawkins or Zoe Pearman.

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