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How social media is fighting the 'sex sells'​ mantra

The rise of social media is often cited as a negative societal phenomenon. Accusations include instigating a false sense of connection between people, cyber-bullying, privacy erosion and plain old procrastination - but there is at least one way in which our love for digital networking is positively influencing human behaviour: the standards of our advertising.

The mantra 'sex sells' has held sway in advertising circles for decades, despite many studies and marketing luminaries declaring it a misnomer. Because the shock value of sex always causes a stir, advertisers often see it as an easy way to build awareness around brands and products.

But in many ways social media is kicking back against this salacious mantra. Protein World's 'Beach body ready' posters, which conquered the London Underground earlier in 2015, inspired a wave of consternation on social channels, especially Twitter, with folk from all walks of life piping up to express their disgust at the advert.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 378 complaints regarding the advert, which featured a slim woman wearing a yellow bikini and asked commuters whether they were 'Beach body ready'. Most felt that, at best, the adverts were tacky and offensive, suggesting that only a slim (most likely photoshopped) figure could qualify for a trip to the beach. Social channels exploded with fury, with users attacking Protein World for promoting an unhealthy body image. The social campaign led to an online petition of over 70,000 signatures calling for the advert to be banned.

The advert was eventually banned - although for a more conventional form of false advertising than the campaigners took offence to. The campaign was pulled when it became clear that the so-called health benefits of Protein World's actual products did not have EU authorisation. In fact, in a recent ruling the ASA decided that the advert was neither offensive or irresponsible, effectively giving a green light to future campaigns wishing to utilise body image anxiety to flog products.

In their ruling, the ASA decreed that the term "beach body" could also carry a broader meaning of "feeling sufficiently comfortable and confident with one's physical appearance to wear swimwear in a public environment,"

"We considered the claim... prompted readers to think about whether they were in the shape they wanted to be for the summer and we did not consider that the accompanying image implied that a different body shape to that shown was not good enough or was inferior."

But it is without doubt that the social campaign against Protein World inspired the awareness for the adverts to be banned - whether they were pulled for the right reasons or not.

Which is a win for social, as it has the power the bypass weak bureaucratic systems like the ASA that fail to get to the heart of whether something is socially acceptable or not. Through direct democracy on single-issue campaigns, society now has the ability to override traditional mechanisms of societal rebuke and defeat/shame companies like Protein World who cross the line.

Of course, there are many examples of it being too easy for aggressive social campaigns to gain traction and the digital hustings of Twitter, Facebook et.al are hardly the fairest environment in which to hold a trial. Indeed, even feminist social media campaigns themselves could be accused of adopting the sex sells mantra - remember #freethenipple?

But on the whole the prevailing attitude on social channels is one where substance and quality of information trumps sensationalism and sex. Savvy news titles are beginning to move away from click-bait headlines and social sells, realizing that they erode trust and can kill a readership in the longterm. In the near-future, one can imagine a time when the snowballing integration between society and social media reaches such a point that the 'sex sells' mantra will seem as redundant, offensive and nonsensical as Protein World's 'beach body ready'.

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