Will Advertising Standards Canada “Weigh In” on How Thin is Too Thin?

A June 2015 decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the United Kingdom – the equivalent of Advertising Standards Canada – recently upheld a reader’s complaint that an Yves St. Laurent advertisement featuring an “unhealthily thin” model was irresponsible. The ASA considered that the model’s pose and the lighting drew particular focus to her prominent visible ribcage and to her legs, where, the ASA observed, her thighs and knees appeared to be of a similar width.  Relying on Clause 1.3 of the UK Code which provides that “marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society”, the ASA concluded that the model appeared unhealthily underweight and the ad was therefore “irresponsible”.  It banned the ad and directed the advertiser to ensure the images in its ads were prepared responsibly.

This decision from the UK follows an April, 2015 vote by France’s National Assembly which banned the use of fashion models deemed to be excessively thin.  In an effort to avoid subjective judgments of what is “too thin”, under the French law, thin is defined with reference to a body mass index (BMI).  Modeling agencies which employ models with a BMI below 18 face hefty fines up to €75,000 or prison terms.  Advertisers are also required to state when photos have been retouched, failing which they also can be fined up to €37,500.  (For a typical 5’10″ model, that’s about 125 pounds.)

France’s law was modeled after Israel’s which was earlier out of the box in 2012.  The Israeli law prohibits an ad depicting a model without a medical authorization certifying her BMI is not lower than 18.5 for adults.  It also requires that ads which have been graphically manipulated must indicate this in a clarification covering at least 7% of the total space occupied by the ad.

Other countries, like Italy, Spain, Australia and Denmark rely on voluntary Codes of Conduct in their real body image battle.  Spain bars models below a certain BMI; Italy requires health certificates for those on the catwalk and Denmark requires healthy food pledges.

While a number of US constitutional experts and bloggers criticized the Israeli legislation as limiting freedom of expression, the Knesset had no trouble finding that the risk of mortality and risks to health from promotion of unhealthy images outweighed free expression in the modeling industry.

The debate has not yet come to Canada but certainly, the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards is broad enough to entertain a complaint respecting underweight models.  Clause 14 relating to “Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals” provides that advertisements shall not “(d) undermine human dignity; or display obvious indifference to, or encourage, gratuitously and without merit, conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population.”

Advertisers in Canada could equally be subjected to a complaint for employing excessively thin models; but, unlike the UK, the Canadian Advertising Standards Council has no power to ban an offending ad.  Advertising Standards Canada employs a complaint-driven compliance mechanism.  If Council determines the advertisement contravenes one or more clauses of the Code such that a complaint is upheld, the advertiser is asked to voluntarily amend or withdraw the advertisement.

If there is a public will to change the face and shape of beauty, it will take a legislative initiative in Canada.  At that time, the debate on free expression can be fully engaged.