The internet has outdone itself in tearing apart Protein World's campaign to get women to replace food with pills and powders. From "your body is not a commodity" and the simple-but-effective "f**k off" scrawled in angry black marker, to the thousands who have signed the online petition to remove the adverts – the feminist public has spoken.
And now, ahead of a planned mass protest in Hyde Park, the posters are to be removed, having reached the end of their three-week contract. So why is the protest still going ahead?
Because, put simply, advertising is still sexist. And it is sexist because of one main reason: the majority of people still buy into misogyny and stereotypes. Orgasms over low-calorie yoghurts; Dove's campaigns that teeter precariously on the border of inspiring/tediously patronising; women falling over bronzed demi-gods over a can of Diet Coke – we've largely come to accept these portrayals of females as part of the landscape of modern life.
The removal of Protein World's guilt-trip posters for weight-loss products is undoubtedly a good thing but it was not due to a campaign against misogyny or stereotypes. As Transport for London confirmed, the campaign came to a "natural end" – and so, it is only a matter of time before the next one comes along and infuriates us all.
Part of the problem is advertising is still stuck in the Mad Men era. Men make the decisions about how products – such as sanitary towels and tampons – are sold to women, which includes encouraging females to master all sorts of strenuous outdoor activities when really, we want to lie on the sofa nursing our cramps in peace. While the number of men and women working in advertising is relatively equally split, women make up just 13.5% at a managing director level or above in the UK. It is telling.
Almost 15 minutes of every hour of commercial television consists of adverts and so, for that period of time, we are bombarded with gender-constructed images of what it means to be men or women. We are aware of how devastating it can be to define ourselves solely by our masculinity or femininity – the underlying causes of high domestic violence and male suicide rates – yet advertising continues to communicate exclusively through gender.
And so, with the exchange value of a product based solely on idealised images of health, youth, fitness and beauty, the hypersexualisation of women in advertising has escalated to the point where it is a matter of course that commercials for shampoo/tampons/yoghurt are served with cleavage or backsides. The majority of bare body parts have belonged to women but their voices remain unheard.
More than 40 years ago, John Berger summed up the roles of men and women in the media in his four-part TV series from 1972, Ways Of Seeing, as "men act" and "women appear". But this disparity still holds true. A study of over 1,000 television adverts found that male voice-overs outnumber female voices four to one – and women were represented only marginally more when their faces or bodies were shown.
Sexism can be the kind that tells us certain chocolate bars are for men, because – incomprehensibly – they are chunkier. But there is another kind of sexism in advertising that is more subversive and, arguably, more difficult to call out: the nudge, nudge, wink, wink sexism that says "we know we're being sexist, so it's OK".
We laugh at adverts from the 1950s as a snapshot of an era when women were confined to the kitchen or the bedroom, of aproned females putting dinner on the table for their hungry husbands and slogans like "Christmas morning, she'll be happier with a Hoover". But in reality, we have not moved on a far as we would like to think. Adverts for cleaning products are still aimed at women, football at men. Naked women are better than clothed women.
So we should protest online or on the street, if not against Protein World's advertising apocalypse, then against the next misogynistic commercial to grace our public transport, magazines or televisions. It is not about a prudish desire to censor nudity or sexuality but a call to give control of the female body back to women – instead of seeing them pasted over billboards as objects to draw attention to mundane products.