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Opinion and Insight

White, Thin, Able-Bodied, Straight and Hyper-Sexualised - London’s Ads Fail to Showcase City’s Diversity

£500,000 of TfL adspace up for grabs in competition aimed at improving diversity of women represented in London’s outdoor ads, as Mayor of London and UCL reveal troubling research, writes Laura Swinton

White, Thin, Able-Bodied, Straight and Hyper-Sexualised -  London’s Ads Fail to Showcase City’s Diversity

London’s outdoor advertising is failing to represent the diversity of the city, particularly when it comes to women – that’s the finding from a major piece of research from University College London and commissioned by the Mayor of London. 

But brands and advertising agencies are being given the chance to right some wrongs in a competition that offers up a whopping £500,000-worth of digital ad space to ideas that break stereotypes and showcase the true diversity of the women of London.

Speaking at the launch event this morning, held at the London Transport Museum, Heidi Alexander, London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport, explained how the research and competition had come about. 

“Having launched the #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign last December, I think the Mayor of London wanted to think about practical ways that we could make a difference to our city to women’s experience. If you walk around the streets of London, whether you’re standing at the bus stop or walking along the platform on the tube, a lot of the images that you see in advertising don’t really represent the diversity of our city,” she said.

Transport for London owns a vast advertising network that includes 40% of London’s outdoor advertising space – and it’s heavy-traffic stuff. Around 31 million journeys are taken on London’s public transport network every single day. And the idea of launching a competition was seen as something positive that the city’s government could do to better the lives of Londoners.

It’s not the first time that TfL has been in the midst of debate around the representation of women across its advertising space – though this time the organisation is taking the lead in the conversation. In 2016, fitness supplement brand Protein World caused a furore with its ‘Beach Body ready’ campaign. That campaign generated about 70,000 complaints and led TfL, in collaboration with the Mayor’s office, to amend its policy and to prohibit images that promoted unrealistic body expectations. 

“It’s interesting to note though, that Protein World have changed their approach since then and that is the sort of outcome that we want. We want to stimulate and promote better advertising campaigns to speak to London’s diversity,” said the Deputy Mayor. “And so this is about a positive campaign today that can shape the adverts out there that people are seeing. I think it’s really important because at the end of the day this isn’t like seeing an advert in a magazine where you can just flip the page over, it’s not like seeing an advert on television where you can just reach for the remote and change the channel.”


The research backing up the competition was led by Professor Jessica Ringrose and Dr Kaitlyn Regehr. They carried out qualitative research with a diverse group of women living across different boroughs, as well as working with groups of teenage girls to unpick the impact that stereotyped and unrepresentative depictions were having on them. Following that, they surveyed 2012 women and men to capture their views on gender and diversity in London’s advertising.

While the survey revealed that 49% of people felt that the quality of ads had improved over the past few years, 39% of Londoners felt badly represented in London’s advertising.

When it came to sexualised imagery of women, participants did not feel enough substantive change had happened. “The same typology of adverts is still there. As one of our participants said, maybe the strapline is not sexist but the bodies are still there and the same constant pressure around diet, fitness, slimming products,” said Professor Jessica Ringrose. “That’s what a lot of our teenage girls expressed; they were upset about that and feeling pressurised.”

The research dug down into different dimensions of diversity – and found the advertising to not only be lacking in diversity but missing out on commercial opportunities. For example, when it came to age diversity, 69% of 18-34 men felt ‘very’ or ‘fairly well’ represented in London’s ads, while 55% of women over the age of 55 felt ‘fairly badly or ‘very badly’ represented. Over half (51%) of BAME Londoners stated that their ethnicity was not well-represented in London’s advertising, despite the fact that participants voted the diversity of people and cultures in London as their second favourite aspect of the city. 

Only 18% of those surveyed recalled seeing an ad featuring a disabled person. One participant even pointed out that she was not even considered as a valuable consumer, noting an absence of advertising content in wheelchair access elevators and corridors within the TfL network. 

Another troubling finding was that where certain brands were increasing the ethnic diversity of their ads, they were doing so by using hypersexualised images of women of colour, thus creating and reinforcing a whole slew of damaging stereotypes. 

The research also highlighted the responsibility that advertisers and media owners have when it comes to ads in public spaces. Participants noted that it was impossible to ‘turn off’ ads in public spaces as they could at home, which meant that they were less able to control the imagery their children were exposed to.

“We need to think about outdoor advertising as non-consensual right? And if you find the images to be problematic it’s actually assaultive. So we need to think about outdoor advertising in a different way,” said Dr Kaitlyn Regehr.

The competition marks an effort to encourage brands advertising to London to fully lean into the diversity of the city and to get creative with a more representative and varied depiction of women.

The competition is open to agencies and brands, and the deadline is October 22nd. Find out more about entering here
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