11th May 2015

Protein World – brave, shrewd or stupid?

Over the past few days I’ve been watching with interest the story surrounding fitness brand, Protein World, and its response to the backlash following its latest ad campaign.

As communications professionals we’re constantly evaluating the way brands respond to a crisis and over the past few days I’ve been watching with interest the story surrounding fitness brand, Protein World, and its response to the backlash following its latest ad campaign.

Last week the brand launched what can only be described as a controversial above-the-line campaign throughout the London Underground. The bright yellow ad, containing the words ‘are you beach body ready?’ pushing its latest ‘Weight-Loss Collection’, alongside a provocative image of a beautiful , scantily clad woman (not dissimilar to those found on the cover of Nuts or Zoo magazine) has evoked a damning reaction.

Within hours of the ads being placed, they were de-faced with anti-campaign messages and social media exploded with images of women explicitly airing their views on what some have termed ‘poison’. Hashtags such as #eachbodysready have seen increasing traction over the past week and images of the brands posters and flyers being ripped up or de-faced are still flooding the net.


In the same week that a story aired about the death of a teenager who was poisoned after taking too many weight-loss pills and the country already sensitive about promoting a healthy body image, was Protein World right to run with the campaign? Is it really ethical to promote another pill-based weight-loss programme in the wake of debate around whether they should even be legal?
It seems these questions were either ignored or the hype around the topic used to fuel Protein World’s campaign further and by the looks of its response to the backlash I can only assume the decision to launch the campaign now was deliberate.

Response to critics on social media has been outwardly aggressive, defensive and at times argumentative. Some tweets posted by Protein World stated that ‘people shouldn’t blame their insecurities on them, suggesting that the UK is ‘too sympathetic to fatties’. So, if we’re measuring the campaign on talkability, there’s no doubt it’s been a success. According to the chief exec, the PR team has had a bonus, surely another blow to the family who is struggling to come to terms with their loss of their daughter as a result of her search for the perfect body?

Every brand has an overarching aim to be known for something and while Protein World currently appears to be reaping the rewards of this national backlash, with sales tripling, I’m not entirely convinced that its longevity is secured for the future. A petition for the removal of its adverts has already received over 40,000 signatures and the negativity surrounding the campaign so far will almost certainly have dissuaded a number of potential brand partners and ambassadors from ever working with them.

In my opinion Protein World could have defended the thinking behind this particular campaign – after all it’s not the first time a brand has ever used an image of a half-naked woman to supposedly inspire us to lose weight/get fit (and it certainly won’t be the last!). Ultimately, it was its lack of empathy and willingness to take feedback that has enflamed the situation and could well have sealed its fate.

There is no doubt that as a result of the social media storm, the brand will have gained more traction within traditional media and overall awareness than its above the line campaign would have delivered in isolation. However this dark cloud of negativity will no doubt appear at the top of Google searches for months and years to come.
Some would say that the vitriol with which the campaign has been received has been over the top and in some cases they would be right but at a time when sensitivities around weight-loss and body image are at an all-time high, it might have been wise to demonstrate at least a little decorum and understanding.

Only time will tell if the brand will survive in the long-term but in the meantime I’m keen to see if the response from Protein World remains steadfast in its defiance of public opinion or if the masses do in fact cause the PR team to opt for a shift in message and approach – either way, I doubt this is the last we’ve heard of it or them.

Watch this space.

By Jo Taylor, consumer associate director