Tis the season — for incredibly offensive and sexist ad campaigns to grace us with holiday cheer, and inoffensive ones to be needlessly debated as crude. But when it comes to advertisements, particularly ads on public transport, people are a lot less tolerant than they used to be. Whether it's the age of camera phones, Twitter-based easy outrage, feminist awareness, or just an I-can't-take-it-any-more mentality, controversies over ads on public transport are coming thick and fast.
Some ad controversies, however, are more spectacular than others — whether they are just unbelievably offensive, kick off a gigantic storm, or are just capable of capturing the conversation at that particular point in time. Metro systems around the world use advertising on various areas, and people are watching — just this August, far-right ads by a political party in Sweden against immigration and homelessness on the Stockholm underground caused a huge stir and a bunch of protests. Brands and causes have noticed that people are paying attention, and they're playing it for all it's worth.
Here are some of the most famous controversial ads that have popped up on subways around the world recently. Watch this space, because you know that within two weeks there will be another one joining the group.
1. The THINX "Underwear For Women With Periods" Ads
This is the most recent of the controversies, and for all period-having people, it's a pretty happy ending. THINX, the company that produces underwear specifically designed for women (and now all people!) who are having their periods, is finally running their glorious, seriously-very-pretty advertisements across the city's subway system.
THINX's battle was won only after the company went to the media for support, following an advertising agent's alleged insistence that the ads wouldn't be approved by the MTA as they were. Before the ads were even run for approval before the MTA, the advertising consultant (who works as an intermediary between brands and the board) allegedly said he was certain parts of the ad design wouldn't be acceptable, including the word "period". Ewww, lady parts, am I right?! The public put it down to long-standing squeamishness about menstrual cycles, was promptly outraged, and THINX got their victory.
2. The Protein World Beach Body Ads
This was the maybe the biggest 2015 advertisement scandal around: multi-continental, social media-fueled, and with one of the most astonishingly tone-deaf responses by the company in charge in recent memory. Protein World's giant "Are You Beach Body Ready?" ads started gaining attention when they were put up in London's underground, producing campaigns, minor vandalism, and op-eds about how inappropriate they were. The company's response? To respond, on Twitter, that Britain is a "nation of sympathisers for fatties". Yes, really. Charming.
When the ads hit New York City's subway, another advertising group saw an opportunity, and covered up the ad's model with a soccer jersey — and its famous slogan with the phrase "Are You World Cup Ready?" instead. The head marketing executive of Protein World, Richard Stavely, said in a statement that they stood by the ads and that it was "a brilliant campaign for us". Controversy: the advertising money can't buy.
3. The American Freedom Defence Initiative Ads
These caused a gigantic storm across the U.S. in 2012, when they were placed in advertising spaces across the subways of New York City and Washington, DC, despite numerous attempts to have them banned. TIME reported that the ads went up after a protracted court battle in which Pamela Geller, the head of the anti-Islamic AFDI, sued the MTA for refusing to put them in their spaces.
The MTA lost the court battle, but put a disclaimer on the bottom insisting that it didn't agree with the poster or support its views. The AFDI and the MTA have clashed about this in the courts numerous times since, with the AFDI insisting that they have the right to free speech and the MTA arguing that the ads count as incitement to violence and hate speech. The MTA also sold a lot of competing advertising space to religious tolerance groups, for good measure.
4. The Oh My God Shoes Moment In DC
The MTA of Washington DC itself came in for round ridicule in December 2013, when it decided that the best way to notify people about its latest improvements was a hilariously sexist poster in which a woman asks whether they can "just talk about shoes" instead of the city's public transport system.
Understandably, this went down like a lead balloon. The news went rapidly viral, with everybody from Buzzfeed to the Huffington Post ridiculing the MTA's apparently totally tone-deaf marketing department, and even though they made the feeble protest that they'd also done an all-man ad (in which one of two dudes is similarly disinterested), the ads were swiftly pulled.
5. The Benetton Boundary-Pushing Ad
United Colors Of Benetton has had one of the most controversy-courting marketing departments in the business for decades. They've referenced HIV, the death penalty, war, and racial inequality in a streak of seriously scandalous and thought-provoking campaigns, but the one that got them into hot water most recently was the UnHate campaign, which went live in 2011.
The ads, which featured global leaders in Photoshopped kisses, were displayed on metro systems and billboards around the world and garnered a host of awards — but they also resulted in a formal slap from the Vatican, who thought that depicting then-Pope Benedict kissing an imam showed "a serious lack of respect for the Pope," according to a senior Vatican spokesperson. The Pope clinch was correspondingly pulled.
6. The Teen Mom-Shaming Initiative
The New York City government put itself into some extremely hot water in 2013 when it ran a series of four ads about teen motherhood across the city's Metro system. All four were from the perspective of babies presumably born to teens — and only one of the three targeted itself at the father of the baby, not the mother (it read "Dad, you'll be paying to support me for the next 20 years").
The response was not particularly kind. While some outlets, like the New York Daily News, defended the ads as realistic, others called them "shaming" and demanded they be taken down. Planned Parenthood lambasted the ads, telling the New York Times that "hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down." Then-major Michael Bloomberg stood by the ads, saying that "this campaign makes very clear to young people that there's a lot at stake when it comes to deciding to raise a child."
7. The Doctors Plastic Surgery Breast Augmentation Ads
You know an ad has made a big splash when the governor weighs in. When the Doctors Plastic Surgery clinic put their advertisements for $3,900 breast augmentation services across the New York subway in 2014, many people were unimpressed by the full-frontal show – including Governor Cuomo, whose aides wrote to the MTA asking for the ads to be removed.
The ads, which were posted in 1000 subway cars and across 50 stations for a ten-week period, were revised over the next year, and the MTA renewed its contract with DPS in 2015 with a less-racy (but still pretty confronting) ad showing a fully-clothed woman holding tiny oranges and then full-sized melons in front of her chest.
Still sexist? Hell yes. Likely to get the Governor involved for traumatizing children? Probably not so much.