Protein All Over The World

Protein All Over The World

29 April 2015 | Lloyd Hughes

“Hey you, you fat b*****d! Lose some weight for summer, or you’ll be a chubby embarrassment.” Is what Protein World didn’t say in its advert on the London Underground. What it did do is portray a picture of a slim woman in a bikini alongside the words: ‘Are you beach body ready?’

Yet this apparently incendiary combination of slogan and image was enough to cause a real ruckus, as apoplectic observers defaced the adverts pointing out that everybody was ‘beach body ready’. The story has been all over the news and social media, causing furious debate and the venting of acidic vitriol on both sides.

Why this particular advert has burst a bubble of spleen is beyond me. The woman in the advert is slim. She’s not skeletally thin. Admittedly she has a physique that even with dieting and exercise, the majority of women would be unable to achieve. But that’s because everyone is different, and this seems to be what the naysayers are arguing. Everyone is different, so why should we be encouraged to look like something that’s unattainable?

Now most people that know me would be well aware that any six-pack that I have is nestled snuggly and invisibly behind a liberal layer of fat. And despite this tendency towards tubbiness I do exercise at least four times a week (with a former Royal Marine, so it’s not a gentle half hour on the cross trainer) and generally only eat badly at the weekend. I’m just cursed with a sloth like metabolism that struggles to burn off a rich tea biscuit without a serious exercise injection to aid it. However I don’t retreat to my bedroom and comfort eat after seeing the unattainable physique on the front cover of Men’s Health magazine. I wouldn’t get close to that without a ridiculous level of dedication that I’m simply unwilling to put in. And just because I’ve seen people who are in better shape than me doesn’t send me into a spiral of depression over my comparably poor genetics.

The fact that everybody is ‘beach body ready’ is a fair point. People shouldn’t be ashamed of how they look and not everyone can expect to have an incredibly toned physique. But surely recognising that is common sense? Anyone with a grain of it would appreciate that not every person they pass on the street is Herculean in their appearance, and that not everyone can expect to be.

I’m not saying body image portrayed in the media isn’t an issue – it is, but I don’t think this particular advert is an example that warrants such a level of hysteria. There are far worse examples out there and I can imagine Protein World was pretty taken back by the excoriating backlash that it’s received. A petition has even been started to get it taken down, with 50,000 signatories. It’s currently top of the trending list above petitions that look to combat deaths in the Mediterranean, the release of a Washington Post journalist from an Iranian prison and a plan to criminalise ‘rough sleeping in Oxford’. Now, forgive me if my priorities are misplaced, but I would argue that all of those are more serious in nature than a picture of a slim woman on an Underground advert.

Some have even said that the furious anti-advert lobby are in effect shaming the body of Renee Somerfield, the model in question. Is she a freak for looking like that? Her lifestyle is reportedly healthy, and her figure is down to exercise and sensible meal choices as opposed to starvation diets that leave her short of nutrients.

It’s also easy to say that my stance on this can be attributed to being a man, yet men – if not to the same extent – are certainly fat shamed by the media. There is definitely an onus on males to be in good shape. Any Hollywood movie you go to see in the cinema usually has a ripped male lead and I’m convinced that any women under the age of 22 genuinely believes all men of a similar age have a six-pack thanks to the explosion in gym-goers.

Let’s not even get started on the media drooling over Aiden Turner in Poldark.

And it’s not just a case of admiring a ‘good’ physique. If any famous male face puts on a bit of timber and is foolish enough to go to the beach then you can be sure that their paunch will be all over the Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’. Check out Leo Di Caprio’s ‘paunch’ here; he’s 40 yet still expected to be in the shape of a 20-year-old.

Perhaps the wider media should be condemned for peddling such stories, rather than zoning in on one particular advert, for one particular company. Why not have a petition asking for these stories to be stopped? Tackling a broader culture is a better approach than spitting venom at a fairly innocuous individual advert.

Protein World has vociferously defended its advert, pretty much telling the complainers to do one in media interviews. This is a risky strategy, but one that seems to be paying off with its customer base. The company claims to have seen sales soar as a result and it’s a fair bet that the people that are complaining about the advert aren’t the ones likely to buy the products, which means Protein World isn’t likely to miss out on trade because of it. So from a sales point of view, this approach is certainly good PR for the business.

Its social media replies on the other hand have been a different matter, and definitely pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Apparently the reigns have been taken over by the CEO and the head of marketing so I don’t expect to see any heads rolling as a result, but some of their responses have portrayed them in a less than professional light, despite a rocketing follower count.

Firms like Paddy Power are the kings of controversy, but they tend to put things out there, keep quiet on social media (with direct responses at least) and let the storm blow over without directly rising to the ire thrown their way, usually waiting to respond in an acerbic blog post. Protein World hasn’t done that but whilst it might negatively affect its brand prestige to a degree, it’s still unlikely that its sales will be adversely impacted or its customers put off.

From a PR point of view, this is almost the perfect storm: blanket media coverage, widespread, trumpeted outrage from non-customers and a surge in sales from a defensive customer base. Protein World should have embraced the media controversy for the extensive brand shout out that it is and defended its position but perhaps kept a lower, more considered profile on social media. That aside though, the team there is probably delighted with the coverage. The old (generally false) adage ‘No publicity is bad publicity’ certainly applies in this case.