Ad Standards gives green light to Honey Birdette “ultimate bondage babe” Instagram image

Ad Standards still failing to grasp the concept of sexual objectification

Ad Standards have dismissed complaints against an image captioned “the ultimate bondage babe” on sex shop Honey Birdette’s Instagram page.

The image, described by Ad Standards, is “a woman depicted mostly naked with a g-string and suspenders [with] her entire buttocks are visible as well as the side of her breast”.


The initial complaint made to Ad Standards noted the image sexually objectified the woman and that her face was not shown- only a sexualised representation of her body. The complainant also cited two decades of empirical research documenting the harms from exposure to sexualised and objectifying representations of women:

...images that sexualise and objectify women, and determine a woman's value based on her sexual appeal and physical attractiveness, have been proven to harm women in a range of ways. Two decades worth of empirical data have found that "regular, everyday exposure to [sexually objectifying portrayals of women] are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women's competence, morality, and humanity."

Ad Standards still doesn’t understand sexual objectification

Sexual objectification occurs when a woman is treated as a body, or a series of body parts, for others’ (men’s) use and consumption, or when her physical attributes and sexual capabilities are regarded as representative of her whole self or seen as determining her worth.

The Headless Women in Hollywood Project documents sexualised ad images of women’s bodies where their heads or faces are not included, and explains why this sexually objectifying treatment of women is harmful:

“By decapitating the woman, or fragmenting her body into decontextualised sexual parts, she becomes an unquestionably passive object to the male gaze. The question of her consent is removed completely alongside her head, and her purpose becomes solely that of being looked at by men obediently. Her value is that only of her sexual appeal to men, and not of her personhood.” In depicting a woman without a head, she is stripped of personhood, and becomes merely a sexualised body.

However, Ad Standards has once again proven its inability to grasp the concept of sexual objectification and its harms, or to engage with decades of research on the issue:

The Panel considered that it was clear from the advertisement that the product for sale was the lingerie, not the woman, and that the woman was not depicted as an object or commodity.

It is insulting to the intelligence of any rational person to suggest that complaints about this advertisement might be due to the impression that “the woman might be the product for sale.”

The Panel went as far as to claim that the sexualised image of a faceless “bondage babe” in nothing but a g-string and suspenders represented power:

The Panel noted that the woman’s entire body is depicted and that the Wonder Woman pose is a position of power... The Panel considered that the woman is depicted in a powerful pose with her shoulders back and her head held high.. the depiction of her in a Wonder Woman pose is depicting her as a sexually empowered being.

Of course, Wonder Woman isn't typically naked.

If pornified representations of women, sexualised nudity and dehumanising treatment are about ‘power’ then why aren’t men lining up to participate? Why is it only women who are the subjects of these ‘empowering’ images?

According to a 2018 report on sexist advertising, while Honey Birdette claim their sexualised images empower women, the “health implications of exposure to sexualised and objectified images of women exist regardless of whether the intention of the images is to empower”. Research indicates that ads that depict women as sexually powerful or sexually confident negatively affects women’s body image. An investigation found that both sexually passive and ‘sexually agentic’ representations were associated with increased weight dissatisfaction, and that viewing sexually agentic representations was associated with higher self-objectification than viewing sexually passive representations or the control images (Halliwell, Malson & Tischner 2011). Is Ad Standards aware of this research? Do they care?

Reducing women to object status is the opposite of empowerment. As Dr Meagan Tyler said:

There is nothing empowering about sexual objectification. Sexual objectification is literally about reducing women's power. These representations of women, that reduce us to consumable body parts, reduce our recognition of women's full humanity and make it more difficult for women to participate in public life.

Essentially, the objectification of women is incompatible with women’s empowerment.

Ad Standards advocates for Honey Birdette throughout their case report

On a number of occasions, the Panel asserts the ‘intent’ of the advertiser in order to justify the sexually objectifying imagery. The Panel claims the bondage image is intended “to invoke a feeling of strength”, and that the choice to exclude the woman’s face was “not an attempt to suggest she is an object...but rather was a creative choice relating to the theme and style of the photograph”. On what basis can the Panel assert the supposed intent of the advertiser, given Honey Birdette did not even provide a response? This is not the first time Ad Standards has attempted to speak to the advertiser's (imagined) intentions in order to dismiss complaints. 

The Panel even claims that Honey Birdette “promotes the empowerment of women”. Really? This is a company that knowingly and consistently disregards advertising standards by broadcasting sexist and pornified representations of women, whose own staff have exposed a culture of workplace sexual harassment and bullying.

Yet again, Ad Standards has proven it cannot be trusted to uphold the interests of the community- just the financial interests of the ad industry.

Ad Standards rules bondage image is appropriate for 13+ platform

Despite the popularity of Instagram with children, the Panel claimed the audience would be adults:

The Panel considered that the placement of the advertisement on the Honey Birdette Instagram page meant that it was a message by invitation rather than intrusion, as it is only visible to people who visit the Honey Birdette Instagram page or who follow the page.

However, just last month we were contacted by a parent after her child was exposed to ‘sponsored’ Honey Birdette content on their social media account. Should the exposure of this child to porn-themed Honey Birdette be disregarded because the audience would be “predominately adults”? Ad Standards prioritises ad industry profits over harm to children.

Read the full case report.

See also:

Ad Standards gives green light to Honey Birdette BDSM ad

25 Reasons Why Ad Industry Self-Regulation is a Disaster

Honey Birdette founder demands special treatment from Ad Standards (again)

Collective Shout responds to common defences of Honey Birdette sexploitation

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