This American Apparel ad, alongside several other similarly suggestive ads from their website, has recently been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority ASA in the United Kingdom. In this blog post I am not arguing whether or not this ban is justified, but rather, I want to analyse the reasons for the ban itself. In a statement, the ASA explained their decision as following:
“We considered that in the particular context of images which featured nudity and sexually provocative poses, there was a voyeuristic and ‘amateurish’ quality to the images which served to heighten the impression that the ads were exploitative of women and inappropriately sexualised young women.”
Important here is the word ‘amateurish’ – purposefully put into quotation marks to underline the potential vagueness of the term. So what exactly makes the images in the American Apparel campaign ‘amateurish’? Rejecting the ASA complaint, an American Apparel spokesperson supplied a useful starting point for this question by arguing that the subjects in the photographs are ‘real, non-airbrushed, everyday people’. American Apparel’s casual response to the ASA complaint neatly disguises the fact that the subjects in the photographs are not merely ‘people’, but they are women, young women, carefully selected (and thus not ‘everyday’ by definition) to suit a brand identity. Despite this inherent contradiction, American Apparel’s statement that the women in the photographs are real and non-airbrushed directly corresponds with ASA’s assessment that the images are ‘amateurish’. In other words, the perceived realness of the female subjects is one of the determining factors in creating images that are deemed ‘amateurish’.
American Apparel quite openly plays with this notion of the amateur since the subject in the photographs is an amateur model as opposed to a professional model. The ads themselves seek to support this narrative by including text such as ‘Meet Steffi’. Notably, unlike the Campbells, Schiffers, or Evangelistas of the past, ‘Steffi’ has no last name, further signifying her status as amateur plucked from a crowd of ‘everyday people’. The bland and seemingly ill-considered location, the unmade bed (perhaps in a hotel room), even the cables from a bedside lamp all contribute to the perception that the images are amateurish. Lastly, the way the photographs were taken – namely with a direct flash light perhaps mounted on a point and shoot camera and seemingly accidental framing – further signify the amateurishness in the image. ASA’s assessment that the images appear exploitative and voyeuristic is provoked by the patriarchal vantage point of the photograph – the male photographer pointing down the camera and thus dominating over the female subject. Here, the downward gaze functions as a metaphor for sexual domination. Looking at all these variables in the photograph, I would argue that rather than the subject signifying the ‘amateurish’, it is the way that the photographs were taken that contribute to this perception the most. In other words, it is not primarily the subjects in the American Apparel ads that are amateurish, but the photographs.
Establishing this important distinction between amateurish subjects and amateurish photographs helps to understand why specifically these American Apparel ads were banned by the ASA. Take for example the recent shoe campaign by the British pop singer Cheryl Cole. Similar to the American Apparel ads, the position of Cole’s exposed legs, the hands in between her legs, and her gaze back to the camera are all sexually suggestive. Yet the fact that Cole’s campaign was not banned (and I am sure that there are many similar campaigns that also have not been banned) relates less to the gesture, position or the state of undress of the subject, than it relates to the setting, format and technique of the photograph. Unlike the American Apparel ads, the shoe campaign was photographed in a studio, under controlled lighting with professional grade equipment. For the lack of a better term, it’s a professional photograph.
As a consequence of this logic, it must be deduced that professional looking photographs – no matter how exploitative, voyeuristic or sexually suggestive they may be – are less likely banned. The assumed professionalism and perfection of commercial photography thus appears to legitimise the sexualisation of women (as well as men). The more perfect (and therefore less real) the photograph, the more sexual the context of the photograph can be.
Yet there is, I believe, another reason why Cheryl Cole’s ad is unlikely going to raise eyebrows with the ASA and the majority of the public. As the shoes make up a central part of the image, the photograph clearly reads as an ad for shoes (if not fashion as a whole). So in addition to professional-looking and therefore non-amateur photography, images with a clearly decipherable commercial agenda appear to be more legitimate. This clarity about the commercial intent of the brand is completely absent in the American Apparel ad: although the viewer knows it’s an ad for clothing, the photograph could easily be a snapshot in a private photo album or a men’s magazine. The ambiguity of what exactly the photograph seeks to promote thus filters into a number of other ambiguities apparent in the photographs: the ambiguous age of the young woman, the ambiguous reference to a sexual act as signified by the unmade bed and the ambiguous presence of a potentially exploitative and voyeuristic Other (e.g. the photographer himself). Paraphrasing the unlikely source Donald Rumsfeld, it’s these known unknowns that most likely triggered the banning of these ads.