The TV advert showed a character named Cheryl talking to her former self two months after starting a Diet Chef weight loss plan.
The distressed former Cheryl, dressed in a baggy shirt and with messy hair, asks in a tearful voice an apparently happier current Cheryl dressed in a more fitted outfit with a more polished appearance how she lost weight.
The complainants said the advert “exploited women’s insecurities about their bodies by implying that you needed to be slim in order to be attractive and happy” and implied overweight women “did not take care of themselves or their appearance”.
Disproportionate focus on weight loss
In its final ruling, the ASA agreed the advert focused “disproportionately” on the former Cheryl’s negative feelings about her appearance and implied that weight loss was the only solution to her problems.
“The character’s unhappy demeanour appeared disproportionate to concerns about her weight, especially as she did not appear to be particularly overweight, despite being dressed in baggy clothing,” the ASA said.
“We considered that viewers would understand that her concerns about her weight had had a significant effect on her general well-being."
The ASA said the advert implied those with insecurities about their bodies and in particular their weight could only achieve happiness and self-confidence through weight loss.
The UK agency concluded the advert presented a “socially irresponsible approach to body image” and told Diet Chef it should be changed.
Diet Chef did not respond to our requests for comment in time for the publication of this article.
However in its defence quoted in the ASA ruling, it said it recognised weight control could be a “sensitive issue for many consumers” and it therefore took its “responsibilities as an advertiser seriously”.
However, it disagreed that the advert suggested consumers needed to be slim to be attractive and happy or that overweight women did not take care of themselves or their appearances.
Instead the company said the contrasting versions of Cheryl showed the frustration of not feeling able to make a lifestyle change or maintain a controlled diet.
It said the future Cheryl offered encouragement of how to make that change.
Diet Chef said the messy and polished appearances of the two versions of Cheryl reflected the idea of “taking control” and this before-and-after technique was typical of weight loss advertisement.
It said that when playing the former Cheryl, the actor had a BMI of 27.4, which meant she was in the overweight category.
Diet Chef had not sought to challenge the ruling, the ASA told us.
'Difficult and ultimately subjective'
ASA press officer Matt Wilson told us reaching a judgement on complex issues like female body image was “difficult and ultimately subjective”.
“[O]ur ASA Council takes into account the audience, medium in which an ad appears, context and prevailing standards in society.
“Our decisions are informed by research that we conduct to help us better understand consumer concerns and where they think the line should be drawn.”
A history of body image
The Diet Chef ruling follows a ban of a similar before-and-after advert for Omega Pharma’s weight management aid, which the agency said presented an “irresponsible approach to body image and confidence”.
That investigation was sparked by 200 complaints.
The ASA addressed another accusation of body shaming last year when 71,111 people signed a petition and 378 people complained to the ASA about a London Tube poster by Protein World.
The poster of a slim woman asking ‘Are you Beach Body Ready?’ attracted considerable attention on social media and even brought feminist calls for a ban to mainstream news.
Yet the ASA eventually concluded that the advert did not “shame women”.