August 8, 2022

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And Adidas shared them all over the Internet. The eye-catching NSFW campaign debuted on social...

And Adidas shared them all over the Internet.

The eye-catching NSFW campaign debuted on social media yesterday to announce the company’s expansion of its sports bra line.

“We believe women’s breasts in all shapes and sizes deserve support and comfort,” Adidas wrote in a tweet sharing the images.

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In a statement shared with The Washington Post, Adidas said, “The gallery was designed to show just how diverse breasts are, featuring different shapes and sizes that highlight why tailored support is paramount.”

Reactions to the ad — which, unsurprisingly, went viral — were polarized. Some criticized the brand for displaying nudity, concerned that children might stumble upon the images. There were a flurry of breast puns. More than a few people ranked the breasts or mocked how they looked.

Others called the images “amazing,” applauding the sports brand for displaying a diverse range of body types, differing in skin tone, age and size. On Instagram, one user said it “feels really good” to see breasts similar to theirs. Another noted that people sexualizing the images were “completely missing the point.”

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Adidas, responding to critical tweets, said it was “important to normalize the human body and help inspire future generations.”

But body image, consumer and lingerie experts were divided about the campaign’s ability to do this — particularly on social media, where the bodies of women and women-presenting people have long been surveilled and censored.

The reception to Adidas’s ad differed greatly depending on the platform. On Twitter, where the images were shown on Adidas’s main account, many of the comments were critical or snarky, while on Instagram, the company posted the campaign on its “adidas Women” account, where it was met with a much warmer, largely positive reception. (To conform to the platforms standards, the image was also doctored, with flesh-colored markings covering the exposed nipples.)

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The campaign explicitly nods to the way nudity has been presented, especially on social media, said Jenna Drenten, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago: Platforms have traditionally viewed breasts as inherently sexual, and content moderators have policed them as such.

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For some, the Adidas ad was refreshing. Drenten said that for these potential consumers, “it’s a chance to look in the mirror.”

This is a departure from the way brands typically share images with consumers, Drenten said. Most brand-mediated images are aspirational — “here’s what you could be,” she said. What makes the Adidas ad out-of-the-ordinary, Drenten said, is that it says to people with breasts: “We see you as you are.”

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That’s particularly notable when presenting breasts, Drenten said. In marketing and cultural narratives, breasts have historically been fetishized — and usually presented to appeal to men — even if the company is selling products intended to be used by women, she added.

But in recent years, many clothing brands, particularly those that sell underwear and intimate apparel, have shifted the way they appeal to consumers, featuring images that are more relatable and more diverse.

The Adidas ad takes the conversation one step further, Drenten said. She noted that the ad seems rooted in grass-roots, women-led campaigns, such as #FreeTheNipple, which have tried to normalize images of breasts, untangling them from sexualization.

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But to Sabrina Strings, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, the company has co-opted an organic campaign for the purpose of selling sports bras.

“They are now trying to sell us objectification as if it’s liberation,” Strings said.

Strings pointed out that the images from the ad show just the breasts, detached from any other part of the body. When bodies — particularly breasts — are presented that way, said Strings, it’s “dehumanizing” and harder to separate the images from fetishization. (A second installment of the campaign, showing a video of women wearing the sports bras and participating in a variety of activities, was released on Thursday.)

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Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and director of The Body and Media Lab, was similarly unimpressed.

“There’s nothing particularly interesting or new about using images of women’s body parts to sell things,” Engeln said. The fact that there was greater diversity than what people normally see in ads doesn’t change that, she argued: “Adidas created and posted a collage of women’s breasts to get attention. There’s nothing particularly subversive about that.”

In an interview with AdWeek, Amy Charlton, senior director of product at Adidas, said the new sports bra line was a “significant undertaking with an all-female team of designers, testers and experts.”

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Charlton said there was a “sizeable data gap” in developing sports bras, so her team worked with breast health experts when coming up with the new line.

“A sports bra is the single most important piece of workout apparel for those with breasts,” the company said in its statement to . “The confidence and support it gives can have a significant impact on someone’s performance and ability to stick with sport. That is why we have re-engineered our entire portfolio, catering to more bodies and workouts than ever before.”

Cora Harrington, founder and editor of the blog the Lingerie Addict, said her first reaction to the ad was one of appreciation.

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For lingerie and sports bra models, “there’s a prototypical shape and size,” she said. Their breasts typically are smaller and sit higher. So initially, Harrington found the diversity of the breasts “quite striking.”

But she was underwhelmed once she actually went on the website to check out the brand’s expanded offerings, she said. The styles were limited — mostly compression styles, she noted, rather than encapsulation styles, which keep breasts separate and provide more support for larger breasts.

Harrington was particularly concerned about the sizes: According to Adidas’s sizing chart, a 4X bra is meant to fit an A cup, a one-inch difference between the bust and the rib cage, up to a G cup, an eight-inch difference. Based on the chart, she’s not confident the bras can meet the needs of a diverse range of bodies. (Adidas declined an interview to discuss the specific criticism.)

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“You can have all the diverse imagery in the world. But if the product isn’t backing up what we’re seeing in those images, then it’s a failed campaign,” Harrington said. “How well is this new size expansion even fitting all the breasts that they’re presenting in this image?”

What’s more, the models on the Adidas website were slender — more of the “standard” model-type, added Harrington. She questioned if these “normalization” efforts were only taking place on social media, where ventures into diversity are “safe.”

Drenten sees an upside to focusing on social media, noting that because of finely-tuned algorithms, the content you interact with shapes what else you discover on those platforms. That means if users interact with this Adidas advertisement, it could open up doors to encountering more natural, less-sexualized images of breasts and women-presenting bodies, she said.

Some supporters of the Adidas ad on Instagram said they weren’t able to share the image, because it was taken down by the platform’s content moderators.

A spokesperson for Instagram said that the company was looking into those claims and that the Adidas post did not violate their community guidelines: “Our AI doesn’t always get everything right and we are always working to improve this.”

Harrington doesn’t see how images like these can be normalized if they’re still being edited or taken down.

Drenten was more optimistic.

Ultimately, Adidas can provoke a conversation and help introduce it to new audiences, Drenten said — but normalization doesn’t come from brands; it comes from people.

Those messy back-and-forth in the comments? Drenten says that’s where normalization happens.

“A single brand doesn’t have enough power to shift an entire cultural narrative,” she said. “It’s up to the community and consumers to decide where the conversation goes.”


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