Did Adidas use women’s bodies as ‘sensationalist bait’ to generate clicks?

When Adidas tweeted 25 pairs of diverse breasts to promote its extensive sports bra range this week it inspired debate about social media censorship, the cynicism of purpose marketing, and, the power of the ever-present male gaze. The Drum asked top female creatives whether they reckon the resulting noise constituted an effective marketing campaign.

In 2022, boobs remain a taboo topic. Just. Marketers are getting better at talking about women's health be it breast-feeding and breast cancer checks. There remain difficulties getting the message into the world due to media restrictions and societal sensitives. Adidas, as a market leader in sports apparel, knows that body positivity and inclusion will grow the number of people exercising and has run celebrated campaigns showcasing hijabi athletes and full-body swimsuits (complete with a swimmable billboard). It has been body-positive in the bra space since at least 2020.

On Wednesday, February 9, Adidas tweeted a grid image of 25 pairs of breasts. Every shape, size and colour imaginable was accounted for in the campaign reportedly assembled by an all-female team. Twitter served as the launch pad, (other sites have stricter nudity guidelines). The post has since earned media on even the restricted social media where the images are deemed illicit.

The work was applauded by industry veteran Cindy Gallop. And supporting the drive was a sleek video that can actually run on other social networks in absence of the bare boobs.

But on Twitter, where said image debuted, top marketers had their reservations about the execution of the campaign and offered insight into how it made them feel – and how they would change it. Here, we ask them to expand on their views:

Amy Charlotte Kean, author and cultures editor at Shots (among other things), writes:

In 2006, Shock Absorber launched the ‘bounce-o-meter‘ – a website that showed bare breasts of all sizes bouncing unsupported during exercise (and it looked painful!). This demonstrated the damage that can be done if you don’t wear a sports bra.

I remember showing colleagues at the time (even male ones!) and the resounding response was ‘ouch!‘ It made its point very well. Sports bras are essential for your physical health and to avoid significant injury. The site then showed the positive difference of wearing a Shock Absorber sports bra.

So, this isn’t really a new idea. You could argue that other brands have made more impact. Literally. But it’s important. We don’t talk enough about tits. Adidas posting a grid of tits in social media is interesting. But it was also done for attention. Let’s not pretend this was an entirely selfless act. And it would have been nice to see the breasts… you know… in situ, like the Shock Absorber creative. But I guess that’d mean less talkability. (And the diversity of shape could have been far, far greater.)

It’s a grid of tits. It’s cool. But I don’t really want to give it a standing ovation. I can’t help feeling that once again women and their bodies are being used to generate clicks and chat, in the same way women are used to generate clicks and chat every International Women’s Day.

So to conclude: I am pro-pictures of breasts. Always. Especially when they’re allowed in social media. Especially in an era of Dear Brian. But some brands manage to celebrate the diversity of the female form without patting themselves on the back so vigorously that a sports bra is required.

Nathalie Gordon, creative director at The Or and savior of the vagina museum, says:

I am all for normalizing the diversity of women’s bodies – particularly normalizing, not constantly sexualizing them – so this is a tricky one. My issue with it is how it feels like sensationalist bait.

The image of bare breasts is not used everywhere – it doesn’t feature at all, in any capacity, on the website.

If it genuinely believes in a message of normalizing women’s bodies and in the power of its new more inclusive size range, it would be more powerful if it had taken that image, showing breasts unsupported, and then flashed to the same breasts in their corresponding sports bra to show the new, more accurate support.

Just showing breasts, with a photography treatment that reminds me of a mugshot, ignores the very thing they are selling. And who is it for? Women already know that all our breasts are different – this is not new news for anyone who has them.

Adidas had posted about the bras before the bare breast image was released, with an insightful post that showed skin indents from ill-fitting bras and talked to the physical consequences of wearing the wrong bra. I saw that and thought, ‘what a brilliant truth – here is a brand who gets it’. But then the breast image came out and all those insightful truths were discarded.

How sad is it that in a world where a brand is genuinely doing good, instead of showing the product doing good, it needs to use naked female bodies to garner attention. Because no matter how you package it up, that is what is happening here. No one is naïve enough to think that if it had simply shown a grid of breasts in bras that it would have received even 10% of the engagement it has so far.

I don’t blame Adidas for taking this approach – I blame society. I blame us all for fueling a culture of rubbernecking where, to get our attention, brands have to illicit a hyperbolic response for anyone to notice what they are doing at all.

(Side note: Aside from all of this, right or wrong, I love that this image is being shared worldwide. There are young people who are struggling, feeling like their bodies look ‘different’ and ‘wrong’, who will see this image – even out of context – and be reminded that their difference is their beauty.)

Read the initial news story here and admire a bold out-of-home piece below.