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Harvey Nichols' "Walk of Shame" ad avoids ban

ASA rules that luxury fashion store's TV ad is not sexist or demeaning towards women.

A TV commercial portraying a series of women making the "walk of shame", with the suggestion of how to "avoid [it] this season", has been deemed inoffensive by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The campaign by upmarket fashion retailer Harvey Nichols was shown in December during the run-up to Christmas and features, in turn, eight dishevelled and embarrassed-looking women in short evening dresses making their way home past commuters and workers in the early hours. The idiom "walk of shame" refers to being in public the morning after a one-night stand.

The ASA received complaints that the ad "was offensive, because it reinforced negative stereotypes of women, and in particular those women who chose to have casual sex", and that it was sexist and demeaning to women. Other viewers took issue with the ad's class connotations; walking confidently into her expensive home, a thin and glamorous woman -- assumedly dressed in clothes from Harvey Nichols -- contrasts variously with those earlier in the video. Three complainants said the advert "suggested that lower class women who had one-night stands should feel shame, whilst more wealthy women who behaved in the same way should feel proud".

Back when the ad was being aired, the Guardian's fashion blog wondered:

is [the ad] saying: if you're a size 14 and wear Lycra and travel by tube then staying out partying is common and vulgar, but so long as you are skinny and expensively dressed and live in an elegant riverside mansion block apartment, it's quite chic?

Despite these public concerns, today the ASA upheld none of the complaints and ruled not to ban the ad. The adjudication stated:

We considered the ad did not reinforce negative stereotypes of women generally, or women who chose to have casual sex in particular, nor that it was sexist or demeaning to women . . . We acknowledged that some people might find the theme of the ad distasteful, but we concluded that it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

The media regulator also felt the commercial did not contain negative depictions of women by social class, nor that sexual violence was implied by the ripped clothing of one woman, as challenged by a complainant.

In its response, Harvey Nichols said they had intended to "raise a smile by reminding people of a familiar hazard of the Christmas party season". Recognising that "society tended to be judgemental", the retailer said its aim was to "playfully" suggest that "a woman's choice of outfit could go some way to offsetting that tendency"; also noting that, as a whole, the advert featured women of various body shapes, from sizes 8 to 18.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.