Love Island and cosmetic surgery ads: time to decouple?

During commercial breaks for the World Cup, viewers expect to see adverts for football boots. During commercial breaks for Love Island, should viewers expect to see adverts for cosmetic surgery?

Anyone who watched Love Island couldn’t fail to spot that some of the contestants had undergone a few cosmetic procedures. Contestants discussed their procedures openly and honestly, and advertisers responded by seizing a golden opportunity to sell cosmetic surgical procedures during the ad breaks.

Like an advert for a football boot aired in the half-time break of the World Cup final, so the adverts for cosmetic procedures that play during Love Island convey the message: ‘you’ve seen this on TV, now you can have it too!’

The difference, though, is that cosmetic procedures cannot be cast off like a pair of football boots: they have risks attached to them, and also unknown effects due to the dearth of research on their long-term outcomes.

Nevertheless, the ads, and the programme itself, have had no small effect on people’s consideration of having cosmetic procedures.

Research undertaken with over 2,000 British adults by ComRes for BBC Radio 5 Live examined the effect of shows such as Love Island on the likelihood of people considering undergoing cosmetic procedures or surgery. The research found that, for one-in-five 18-24 year olds, reality TV shows make them more likely to consider having a procedure, compared to only three per cent of 45-54 year olds.

A clinic based in Ireland which provides non-surgical procedures has also reported a 200 per cent increase in demand for lip fillers recently, which it attributes to the show. (The same clinic also offers a ‘Love Island package’ of non-surgical treatments including injections of Botox and lip fillers.)

But even those whose businesses have benefited from the upsurge in requests for cosmetic procedures as a result of the programme may express unease. A Birmingham-based cosmetic surgeon, for example, observed that more young women have visited his clinic in the last few weeks off the back of Love Island’s airing, commenting that “it becomes worrying if they are asking for a breast augmentation because they think it will help them find love, that a particular appearance will increase their chances of securing a relationship.”

It’s therefore unsurprising that the placement of cosmetic surgery ads during the show has led to criticism from a number of quarters.

A letter from Claire Murdoch (NHS England’s National Mental Health Director) stated “[not] only are there clear risks associated with cosmetic surgery, but placed alongside the body image pressures that can be inherent in many online and social media interactions, adverts such as these could pose a risk to mental health”. The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), one of the associations that represents aesthetic and plastic surgeons in the UK, has also stated strongly that “[by] advertising cosmetic surgery alongside this type of programming – and in some instances, even using the stars of the show – unscrupulous clinics are targeting young people in a way that commodifies surgery as a quick fix and endangers patients.” This criticism echoed comments from Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, who highlighted on the Andrew Marr show that “you’ve got explicit adverts being aimed at young women around breast cosmetic surgery. That is playing in to a set of pressures around body image”.

But what can actually be done to address these issues by those who regulate advertising and TV programmes?

In our 2017 report on cosmetic procedures, we came up with a few ideas.

One answer lies in the role of Ofcom, the organisation that has responsibility for regulating UK broadcasts. Our report suggests that Ofcom should review available evidence (such as the recent BBC 5 Live ComRes study) to consider whether it should add specific guidance to its broadcasting code, taking into account tacit messages on body image and appearance ideals conveyed by TV shows. The case of Love Island epitomises these concerns and Ofcom, in its role as regulator, must engage with the issues robustly.

Another answer may be found in the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority. Our view is that the ASA needs to be more proactive in reviewing advertisements, particularly in relation to adverts that convey a message that there is a likely link between cosmetic procedures and emotional benefit. In response to Claire Murdoch’s letter, the ASA welcomed NHS England’s views, and said that it “looked forward to meeting with them to discuss this further.” Whether this meeting leads to a shift in ASA’s approach to the ads that have been subject to debate following Love Island will be something that we will monitor with interest.

ASA and Ofcom – but also those companies who provide cosmetic procedures or produce TV shows that place those procedures front-and-centre – must think harder about the messages they’re conveying and the appearance norms they are establishing. But more than that: they have a responsibility to do something about it.

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