How Swehl Is Capitalizing on the Molly Baz Billboard Controversy

After highlighting adland's double standards, the brand has seen a 500% increase in site traffic

Leaders from Glossier, Shopify, Mastercard and more will take the stage at Brandweek to share what strategies set them apart and how they incorporate the most valued emerging trends. Register to join us this September 23–26 in Phoenix, Arizona.

If you weren’t familiar with breastfeeding brand Swehl before this week, you surely are now.

This week, the company’s 45-foot billboard featuring cookbook author Molly Baz, her pregnant belly, a rhinestone bikini and two lactation cookies covering her breasts took over Times Square.

Since then, people across TikTok and the media have sounded off on the ad. The cause for furor? Not long after its debut, OOH owner Clear Channel Outdoor flagged the ad for review, saying the imagery violated its “guidelines on acceptable content.”

In response, Swehl’s media partner Brex replaced the original shot with another image from the campaign, showing Baz in jeans and a crop top.

Now, the brand is capitalizing on the controversy. Founders Elizabeth Myer and Betsy Riley told ADWEEK that Clear Channel’s adjudication underscored a hypocrisy that persists in advertising.

“The message is pretty clear: Women’s bodies are acceptable if and when they can be sexualized,” Myer said. “However, if we dare to bare our pregnant bellies—the reason for human existence—we are literally deemed ‘unacceptable.’ The irony is astounding. We should all be pissed, ready and excited for what’s next.”

Indeed, the paradox of reviewing a poster that occupies the same corner of the city where partially clothed Skims models and a glistening Calvin Klein-clad Jeremy Allen White have posed in their underwear on large-format 6-sheet billboards has not been lost on Myer, Riley, Baz or their target audience.

However, as the conversation has unfolded, the founders have seized their moment to raise awareness of their brand and its mission of empowerment.

“[The decision] wasn’t a shock, but it was certainly a huge disappointment,” Riley said, pointing out the “double standard.”

She added: “This is just one instance among many examples of how our society aims to silence women and to take away our agency.”

Since Clear Channel’s judgment was reported by The New York Times, Swehl, which hosts free educational breastfeeding videos, runs community events and sells breastfeeding accessories, has seen a 500% increase in traffic to its website, drawing in 40,000 new users.

On May 14, it also pivoted a preplanned community event into a Hot Moms March, convening activists, influencers and healthcare professionals on the streets of New York City to celebrate what the invite described as “a woman’s right to celebrate her pregnant belly—while fighting against the rampant censorship that women and their bodies receive.”

Riley said the outpouring of support highlighted the larger issue at hand: that a sexualized breast meets guidelines on acceptable content, but a lactating one is in violation.

“Ultimately, this isn’t about lactation cookies or breastfeeding. It’s about giving fuel to diverse voices—all of whom are ready and willing to be the change,” she noted, saying she wanted Swehl to drive change on a systemic level.

Milk, cookies and a side of censorship

The controversy comes as marketers who cater to women still report increased scrutiny and sometimes outright censorship of their advertising on certain platforms.

This presents a growing creative challenge for brands, forcing many to grapple with the appropriate level of provocation when confronting taboos.

Recent examples include a now-revised ruling from British advertising regulators to ban a Calvin Klein ad featuring musician FKA Twigs on the basis that it presented her as “a stereotypical sexual object,” even though she said the images made her feel “empowered.”

A similar debate flared up during this year’s Super Bowl. Cosmetics brand NYX and agency McCann New York were forced to make some last-minute changes to an ad starring Cardi B after the NFL rejected the punchline. Critics of the NFL’s decision called it “censorship of the female perspective.”

At the time of writing, Clear Channel had not clarified to Swehl what specific guidelines its ad had violated. Swehl also confirmed it had not received any direct complaints about the campaign. ADWEEK has reached out to Clear Channel for further information.

Swehl’s message was simple, if playful and cheeky. It was also aligned with the optimistic, bright, saturated vision of motherhood the startup portrays on its website and social platforms.

Myer explained that this tone, coupled with a focus on the challenges of parenting in the U.S., was part of the brand’s strategy to engage with millennial and Gen Z parents. “We lead with humor, and use bold creative and messaging to bring light, celebration and empowerment to a serious subject to create connections,” she said.

So will the brand shy away from bold creative now it’s spent a week occupying national headlines, or push onwards?

“Absolutely [the latter], yes—you can expect Swehl to keep doing what we do best,” Myers finished.

Enjoying Adweek's Content? Register for More Access!