Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

The Huggies ad that caused the stink

Well now this is interesting. The Huggies ad that caused such a stink — no pun intended, but I’ll take what I can get — has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa. Having successfully* defended several ads subject to rulings by the ASA, I always follow their rulings with interest, but this one is noteworthy for three reasons.

Firstly, it addresses the delicate question of how children should and should not be portrayed in advertising; secondly, the blue-chip companies involved in this mess, companies that should have known better; and thirdly, the fact that the complainants who raised awareness of the offending ad, and took it to the ASA, are bloggers.

If you have not seen the offending billboard, it features an image of a toddler, wearing the product in question, posing provocatively for the camera while wearing an apron. She is evidently playing waitress for her teddy bear, which is seated at a table. The words “Work it baby” appear at the top right hand corner of the billboard. Lauren Beukes, the blogger who first noticed the ad and campaigned for its removal, writes about it here.

“Do I think this ad is going to inspire someone go out and rape a baby? No,” she writes. “But I think it contributes to a bigger picture, of normalising this skewed cultural idea of little girls as sexy. It’s a tacit endorsement.”

“I also don’t think it was intentional or malicious on the part of the nappy manufacturer or their advertising agency — just short-sighted, naïve and grossly insensitive to the reality of sexual violence.”

The advertising agency, Ogilvy, defended the billboard by arguing that:
* The scenario communicates the hard-wearing nature of denim (as do the words “Work it baby”);
* Children often role play with their toys;
* Most of the complaints came from Cape Town, despite the fact that the billboard was also up in Johannesburg;
* Several of the complaints resulted from the complainants having read an article about the billboard rather than seeing the billboard itself.

In response, the ASA was unmoved by the suggestion that Capetonians were just hyper-sensitive, as this did not affect the validity of the complaints. They noted that it was important to consider their ruling in the context of high levels of child abuse and rape in South Africa:

“Advertisers,” they argue, “have a particular responsibility to ensure that any advertising featuring children do not cross the proverbial “line” by attributing adult-like sexual characteristics and behaviour, such as posing seductively or provocatively, to children, who are not naturally inclined to do so.”

They then turned to previous rulings for guidance. In one case, a member of the public had complained about a Pledge ad featuring a little girl in a tutu and pearls, which he said would encourage paedophilia. The ASA found in favour of the advertiser on the grounds that the use of the child was in a context that was completely innocent; she was in no way sexualised. In contrast, the words “Work it baby” in the Huggies ad are associated with encouraging adult women “to act in a sexually provocative manner”. As for the child in the billboard,

“There is nothing innocent about the way the toddler is portrayed. The adult pose together with the red lipstick, the pout and the frilly apron are elements that when put together portray the toddler in a sexually provocative manner.”

Ogilvy defended themselves vigorously when the blogosphere first started campaigning against this ad, arguing that any sexual innuendo was unintentional. Which makes them either the biggest bullshit artists ever in an industry famous for bullshit artistry, or more obtuse than a parallelogram. I am staggered that South Africa’s biggest agency, which has an enviable reputation for both creativity and professionalism (granted, we are talking advertising here), and Kimberly-Clark, the parent company of Huggies, could make such a stuff-up of such proportions. Because while the agency is being targeted here, the client is just as much to blame, because the client signed that ad off — and anyone with a neuron and half a synapse could have seen that even if any sexual innuendo were unintentional, it nonetheless involved the sexualisation of a child, and that was utterly unacceptable.

(I’ve been in many situations where potentially offensive ads, or ads that could have been interpreted as offensive, have been on the table. Sometimes the client loves them as much as the creatives do, and it’s the job of the strategist to persuade everybody otherwise. Usually sense prevails. Not always. But usually.)

The ASA concluded its ruling with the following assessment:

“While the Directorate recognises that the respondent probably did not intend to convey such a message, the fact remains that the advertisement contains sexual innuendo in relation to a child, which is not permissible in terms of the Code.”

I don’t always agree with the ASA; sometimes I find their rulings to err on the nanny-statish. But in this case, they made the right decision. In a world where the people in this industry occasionally looked up from gazing lovingly at their own navels, fewer rulings would be necessary: what a pity that such a fantastically tasteless, utterly irresponsible ad saw the light of day in the first place.

* Except for one, which showed a man trying to teleport to his mother in Durban in a fridge. The ASA ruled that it could encourage dangerous behaviour by children.

  • Lynne

    Many years ago I was in what was then the OK Bazaars in downtown Jo’burg and witnessed a rehearsal for a “Miss Ladybird” pageant, sponsored by OK. All the little girls taking part were no more than 6 years old. It wasn’t good enough to have them romp around like the children they were – they were being encouraged to “strut their stuff” down the runway as their adoring mommies looked on. Even in practice many of them had make-up on. It was one of the most horrible things I had seen done to little girls, and I swore that if I ever had a daughter (I had an infant son then) I would never subject her to that kind of degradation. In this case, the advertisers were trying to defend the indefensible.

  • Mark Kerruish

    A good, insightful blog Sarah. We Kaapies seem to get a lot of flak for taking democracy seriously.

    “Except for one, which showed a man trying to teleport to his mother in Durban in a fridge. The ASA ruled that it could encourage dangerous behaviour by children”.

    You’re not serious?

  • plaasjaapie

    “Except for one, which showed a man trying to teleport to his mother in Durban in a fridge. The ASA ruled that it could encourage dangerous behaviour by children”.

    Ridiculous decision – now if he was trying to teleport to Joburg or Cape Town, I could understand it.

  • Sarah Britten

    @ Mark: siriaaas. It was a kulula ad. I argued that since fridges since the 50s had to be manufactured so that they could be opened from the inside, there was no real danger, but they ruled otherwise and the ad was banned.

    My general impression is that the ASA is stricter now than they used to be; I am sure that some of the ads I defended would be banned today.

  • Winkie

    Still happens, Lynne. I have twice been appalled by similar spectacles – little girls in make-up and revealing clothes performing like ramp models – outside The Hub, Princess Crossing in Roodepoort. Following a recent conversation with a young girl who casually ran down all the rapes that had happened to friends and neighbours in her township, many of them young girls, this kind of sexualising of the young seems even more horrifying to me now.

  • Kristi Maria

    Love the denim nappies. Means my little son can go round in nothing but nappies and still look fashionable. He loves them too. Not sure about my position re the ad, but some people are too touchy. There are much more powerful ways to counter child-abuse than banning nappy ads. If people felt this strongly they would do something proactive, instead of complaining about too much sex on TV, too much innnuendo in ads. Its too easy to point at the media.

  • hilary

    Horrifying that they actually tried to defend this instead of just apologising. My little girl won’t be wearing Huggies anymore!
    PS Kristi Maria. Your baby son looks fashionable???!! Well that’s definitely more important than combating child abuse

  • Lauren Beukes

    Kristi Maria, I agree with you that complaining about an ad isn’t going to do squat to change the child rape statistics.

    But it was never about that – it’s about standing up to insensitive and inappropriately sexual representations of kids.

    It might be a very, very small step in fighting our warped cultural values where it’s okay for little girls to be seen as sexy.

    But absolutely, slacktivism never changed the world. Get involved. Make a donation. Volunteer.

    Here’s a list of just some of the organisations who do the REAL work on the ground, supporting child rape survivors, if you’d like to donate some cash (the price of a pack of Huggies Denim might be an appropriate amount) or volunteer:

    The Sarah Baartman Centre, which has a useful button on its site, telling visitors how to make contributions and volunteer:

    Here’s a wishlist for Childline:

    And Rapcan has a direct donations button on: