Banning sexist ads

Things are starting to happen, more and more debates are stirring up regarding the sexist misrepresentations we have been force fed for decades by ads, institutional and systemic activities are blossoming in the form of bans. If things continue to progress in this order, we might, might, be able to overcome the daily litany of sexism we are exposed to each and every day. I do not think that we will ever be rid of sexism altogether, that would be too much to ask, right? But if we could at least not portray ourselves in demeaning ways, then that would surely affect the way we see and act towards each other as well.

There are and have been many different projects dealing with these issues for the last couple of years, to name a few: The Representation Project with social media campaigns like #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike, the ad agency Badger & Winters’ campaing #WomenNotObjects, the underwear brand Aerie with their #AerieREAL campaign. Not to mention the many scholars and authors who have been discussing the way we portray women and men in ads, art and film since the 60’s and 70’s (for instance: Laura Mulvey, Jean Kilbourne, John Berger, Erving Goffman, Sut Jhally, Denice A. Yanni, Debra Merskin, and many, many more). Nonetheless, real change takes time, and effort, and endurance. Since advertising as we know it is a social institution, changing it is not just a matter of flicking a switch, as Warlaumont wrote:

Advertising images have a special importance to scholars of popular culture because of the “reality” they construct for the viewer, especially in terms of gender portrayals. Because they are ubiquitous, these portrayals often become our established visual grammars of gender. Since these images are driven, in part, by economic conditions – which often encourage the exploitation of women and others in order to sell products – change has been met with some resistance.

Needless to say, the images we are given have become established, we have breathed them in throughout our lives, they are a part of our norms and value system, therefore, not all see or understand that this is in fact an issue, that this is not the way it has to be, that such images are socially constructed, and thus, they can be re-structured. Thankfully, there are those who do and who have brought this up time and time again, who fight for all of us, even the ones who do not want to see or admit that this affects them as well.

Lately, other larger organizations and institutions have also started to understand the problem, and taken a stand towards it. Some weeks ago the city of Trondheim in Norway declared that ads conveying negative body image will be banned and no longer displayed in public spaces.

“No advertising that conveys a false image of the model/models’ appearance and contributes to a negative body image will be permitted.”

And in a similar manner, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently banned body-shaming ads on the transit system.

“As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies.”

Finally. Action is taken, for real, in a way that can actually bring about some change. Now, I must also express that I am not that particularly happy about the fact that such ads have to be banned, it would be so much better if companies and ad agencies just stopped producing them by their own free will. But since this has not occurred to many (or most..) of them, well, then I guess it’s better that they get stopped by any means necessary, such as bans. It is not enough to just have some advertising standards that companies should follow, without there also being repercussions when they refuse to follow them. In Sweden for instance, we have the Reklamombudsmannen, a foundation where consumers can for instance report ads that they do not find ethically acceptable. There are different types of reports that can be made and one of them concerns gender discriminatory ads, but even if you report an ad, and even if that ad gets condemned for sexism for instance, there are no repercussions what so ever for the company behind the ad. They can, if they want, take it down, or they can totally ignore it and keep spewing their sexist agenda. Such a system is a nice thought, really, it is nice to think that people would behave and if someone tells them they have done something bad, they apologize and try never doing it again. But, unfortunately for us all, people are not like that, not all the time, not everyone. So if they will not listen to reason or just have a general understanding of equality and not want to demean and exploit both women and men, well, fuck it, let’s ban them. In a Swedish newspaper today there was a debate article about just this: the leader of the feminist party in Sweden argued for a ban on sexist ads. On the flip side the chairman for the youth liberal party claimed that such a ban would invade on the freedom of speech, and sure, that may be true, but hey, what about the freedom of not feeling offended when walking out your door, what about the freedom of not having misogyny thrown in your face, what about the freedom of being seen as an equal, what about the freedom of not being brainwashed with in-human, perfectly flawless body and beauty standards that no living person can ever live up to? Of course, sexist ads are not the root of the problem, but they are a part of it. And if all sorts of different brands have not yet understood that they should perhaps try not creating sexist ads in order to sell their products, well then perhaps it is time to do something about it.

If ever there would be a vote or petition in Sweden for banning sexist ads, I’d be the first to sign it. Bring it on, I have my pen ready.



7 thoughts on “Banning sexist ads

  1. I’m sorry, but I must disagree with you. And here’s why:

    1. First of all, banning things that are ‘offensive’ for a few is a slippery slope. I mean there always will be people who are ‘offended’ by something, so by your logic we should just start banning and silencing everything? Let’s say that I don’t like to see a new Mercedes advertised because it reminds me that I can’t afford one, implicitly I’m not equal to those who can, so what? Should I start a campaign against expensive car ads? Maybe it sounds childish, but believe me, so does to me taking offense in seeing a slim body and calling it ‘body shaming’.
    2. We should view the problem from another angle too, maybe the women on those ‘sexist’ ads like what they do, maybe they are proud of themselves (because let’s face it…it takes a lot of work to ‘maintain’ a healthy and fit body) maybe their dream was to become a photo model. I thought that feminism is all about women having the possibility to become whoever they want, and about having the freedom to choose and do what they like. And it seems to me that this is their choice. So by feminist logic women can do anything they want in life…as long as other women are okay with it?!
    3. Praising Sadiq Khan…you can’t be serious! You do realize that his religion requires women to cover themselves, right? Did it cross your mind that maybe that’s the reason? And we are talking about Islam, which happens to be the most oppressive religion out there when it comes to women. By far. I just don’t understand feminists who are making a big deal about insignificant things, but on the other hand they are okay with muslims (or more, supporting them), which is like campaigning FOR a slaughterhouse as a vegan. I personally think that there is need for feminism, but in societies where women are truly oppressed, killed, not given any right, subjugated. If feminists are really true to their cause, maybe… just maybe they should start fighting the good fight.


    • Hello and thanks for your comment!
      1. No, I did not say that we should start banning everything that someone finds offensive, you are kind of taking what I am saying and turning it into something else. Sexist ads, which this is about, is not just about them being offensive to “some”, but about how they can affect EVERYONE in a society. It is about the gender roles and power relations that are manifested and maintained through them, which are most often misogynistic. After all, sexist ads are created in a culture, in a society, and they work both as mirrors of said society, and also as separate institutions which just regurgitate certain (in this case, patriarchal) norms. So no, I am not saying that we should start banning things just because they are offensive, I say that we should start banning sexist ads, specifically, since they have been a problem for a long time and since the people making them are not learning their lessons and keep getting more and more explicit, then yeah, why not try banning them and see what the results will be?
      2. The models in the ads may think whatever they want, we cannot know how they feel or what they think about those ads, but then: they are ALSO a part of the crooked society which created the ads, they have ALSO been brainwashed into thinking that their only worth is how they look on the outside. PLUS: All those models are photoshopped, at least the majority of them do not look like that in reality..
      3. I am not praising him or his religion or anything like that, the only thing I “praised” if you can call it that, was a decision he made. So again, you are just corrupting my words instead of actually reading and understanding them.. Also, it is always amusing to read a westerners’ thoughts on other religions that they do not have or understand themselves.. I am not islamic, or christian or anything, I am an atheist and I do not care for any damn religion. What does that even have to do with this? I think it is so ridiculous that certain christians/westerners say that other religions are misogynist cause they make their women cover themselves up (which I can agree with, sure) and at the same time they are toootally fine with displaying women as sex objects (=just another type of oppression). Either way, women loose, men loose, we all loose. That is why I think we should all just get over religion once and for all.


      • Thanks for taking the time to reply.

        You are right, I turned this into something else, but I did it deliberately, and my goal was to let you see the bigger picture here. You are saying that we shouldn’t ban things that are offensive, but we have to ban sexist ads because they affect everyone. How exactly? And why do you assume that everybody is affected? Sorry, but I don’t feel affected, and neither the people I know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an insensitive being, I just don’t get the fuss. In my book the ads you are talking about are just a sign of poor taste, and as a man I’ve never considered the women in them being ‘objects’. The point I want to make is that I find unfair the idea that a group of people can have the power to just ban things because it’s offensive for them. In my opinion that’s censorship, and on the other hand it isn’t a solution. I get it, just banning them is at hand and easy to do, but sweeping the dirt under the rug is never a solution. Instead we should make the people develop critical thinking, so they can decide for themselves what is moral and what’s immoral, to challenge new ideas, to listen and to express themselves, and more importantly so they WON’T be influenced by some ads. A sane person should know how not to take seriously an advertisement. I mean come on….It takes a very shallow person to be influenced by an ad, not talking about ‘the body shaming’ stuff, which is pathetic if you ask me. You can’t just pin your insecurities about your body on the ‘evil patriarchy’. 🙂

        And about Sadiq Khan, my intentions were not to corrupt your words (I actually read and understood what you meant), but to suggest that behind his actions can be very easily his faith, which happens to be the complete opposite of the true feminist ideology, so we should take it with a pinch of salt.


      • No worries, I like discussing things with different people ;]
        Hm well I am seeing the bigger picture just like you, but our pictures are different I guess, and of course everyone sees things in their own way. I think, as I also wrote, that it would be really great if people would use their critical thinking more, if those that created such ads realized that they perhaps should try selling their stuff in other ways that do not demean people, but unfortunately, that is not how it works. And the thing about ads is that we do not really know how much or how little they affect people, some ads you may walk past and they may never have the slightest of impact on you or your subconscious, but the thing about sexist ads is that they tell us a lot of what we learn about the world, I am talking mostly about gender here, and different gender norms. Of course, there are people who are critical and look at such ads in dismay, but still, no one can ever really say that all the sexist ads they have seen throughout their lives have never ever made any sort of impact on them whatsoever. It is not just “very shallow” people like you said who get affected by ads, we all do in one way or another, even if we do not want to admit it. Of course, it does not have to be conscious, but as people we do get affected by the things we see around ourselves, there is no denying that. Even scholars who argue that using sex in ads does not have to be negative, still claim that sexist ads may affect people in negative ways, that they still may have a negative impact on the societal values and beliefs. There are several studies on this as well, I myself am researching sexist ads and so far I have mostly found that people respond negatively towards them. And sure, banning them can be seen as censorship, but just letting big corporations spew sexism in public, is that not something that we should do something about? Why is censorship more important than equality? Are we just supposed to wait and hope that they change their ways? Some of them have been at it for decades, and it does not look like they give a fuck about offending anyone, they just keep doing what they are used to doing. I am not saying that banning such ads is the most optimal solution, I am just saying that it might help so why not try it and see if it would in fact make any difference. If it doesn’t work then let’s move on and find another solution.
        Furthermore, this is difficult to discuss on an individual level, since the problem itself is societal, structural, so even if you as an individual have critical thinking, even if you personally do not see the models in ads as objects, that does not mean that the imagery is not trying to convey just that, it does not mean that others don’t see it that way. And even if you want people to develop their own critical thinking and all that, sure, it is a lovely idea, but in reality, such change takes a lot of time, if it ever even happens. What you must remember is that all of those people are already living in a certain society, and sexism, regardless of what kind (in ads, in media, in art, at work, at home, in our language etc) is a structural problem in that society. It is not that easy to just get rid of it, since it can be found in just about every layer of said society. And again, sexist ads are not the main issue, but they are a part of the bigger problem, and changing them in some way, will affect other things as well, and taking a firm stand against such ads, especially by big corporations, governments etc, will more likely get the ball rolling faster than if a few individuals here and there decide to stop buying this and that because of their ads. I highly recommend you to read Berger & Luckmans old classic about the social construction of reality, and also some institutional theory, I think that pretty much explains where I am “coming from” in this issue :]

        Well I do not know him personally so I have no idea what he believes in or not, all I liked was that he took a stand against something that is important for me as well, that’s all. Even if you are from two different worlds, you may still have a common “enemy”, that does not mean that you are all of a sudden in total agreement with everything else ;]


  2. I should’ve brought up that I don’t possess any degree resembling this field, I just speak out of rationality and expressing my own take on this subject. Lately I’m been hearing a lot about these ‘buzzwords’ like ‘body shaming’, ‘offensive’, ‘sexist’ and I just don’t get it. When did everyone become so ‘fragile’? You said: “…we all do (get affected) in one way or another, even if we do not want to admit it “. I would gladly admit it…but what should I? I really don’t care for them because I learned to discern between advertisement and reality. And that’s what everybody should do. You are saying that they are photoshopped…of course they are, we are talking about advertisement, they photoshop even a Big Mac, everything is blown out of proportions. I just can’t comprehend how a skinny woman in a bikini can make other women angry…Are they really that insecure about themselves that they have to ban those pictures? It’s like the female body is becoming a taboo. What’s next? Sexuality? If we are keeping it this way, soon we are going to land right in the 1900’s and we can start with Feminism 1.0. I came across of a very good post about the London situation and here’s a quote: “What could be more demeaning to women than the idea that their self-esteem is so weak that they need politicians to cover their eyes so that they never see anything which might make them ‘ashamed of their bodies’?” I agree 100%. You keep saying that those are demeaning…but towards who? And how exactly?

    “Why is censorship more important than equality?” Please detail ‘equality’. Who’s not equal to whom?
    If it’s not important then what’s stopping us to censor other things in the future? We won’t let slim women on the beach because those ‘not-so-skinny’ will get offended? There always will be someone offended if continue this way. How about ‘build immunity’ and just ignore what you don’t like for a change?
    And I’m pretty sure of the fact that we learned throughout the history that censorship is a very bad idea regardless of it’s goal, see the alcohol prohibition, nazis burning books, forbidding ‘heretical’ text in the middle-age, etc. And the truth is they all thought they are doing good by it.

    This is just out of curiosity…let’s say that starting tomorrow they ban all sexist content in advertising. How would you continue your work in this field?


    • You don’t have to have a degree or have researched this in order to discuss it, and of course everybody is entitled to their own opinions. You have probably started hearing all those “buzzwords” lately because people are finally starting to talk about it again and more, and it is not that people are more “fragile” nowadays, it’s rather that people are starting to speak up about something that many have been concerned about for decades. It’s good for you that you can tell the difference between ads and “reality”, but that does not mean you have never been affected by ads, and further more, could you tell the difference when you were a kid? Think about children who grow up in a society where women and men are portrayed in such different and skewed ways; do you honestly think that does not affect them at all? That they can just think “rationally” and ignore ads altogether? And it is not about one skinny woman in a bikini making women angry, it’s about the fact that the majority of the women in ads are portrayed in the same way; what the media has decided to be beautiful and “perfect”, i.e. skinny and flawless. Real women do not look like women in ads, but they are persuaded and pressured to try and look like that and since the models and images are so photoshopped, not even the models in the ads look like that = it is an unrealistic standard. Think about all the time many girls and women spend on trying to look beautiful and “sexy”, day in and day out, do you really think ads have nothing to do with that? The insecurity you are talking about is not something that all women just have innate, it is something that they are basically taught to have; if we do not look like this and that, act like this and that, we are not “worthy”, because a woman’s worth is mostly placed upon her looks in our societies. A man’s worth is not, even though men are also encouraged to look good, it is not the same kind of pressure. I could go on and on about this but the general idea is that women in particular are and have been portrayed in ads in a very different way than men, and many of those images are sexist since they are using for instance stereotypes concerning gender roles, objectification, violence and are overtly sexualized. If you are really interested in learning more about this, I can recommend this video with Jean Kilbourne who has done a lot of research on this and speaks very openly and accessibly about it:

      Regarding your comment: ““Why is censorship more important than equality?” Please detail ‘equality’. Who’s not equal to whom?” Again: the issue is about women being so overtly sexualized and objectified in ads, while men are not, not in the same way and not to the same extent. That is not equality. That is sexism.
      You keep focusing on the “skinny” part, but that is just one aspect of this whole issue, and of course I am not talking about skinny people per se, I am talking about ads, about how people are photoshopped and constructed through ads. And if all ads show only skinny people, how is that ok? How is it ok to just display certain kinds of people and not all?
      Also, I do not really understand your reasoning when you say “How about ‘build immunity’ and just ignore what you don’t like for a change?” even though ads are basically covering every inch of the public space, instead of doing something about the ads, we should instead teach ourselves (in some way, I have no idea how exactly..) to “just ignore it”? Really? Why should people have to learn to ignore ads, instead of ads learning to not portray people in a skewed and sexist way? It seems a bit backwards to me..
      Again, banning might not be the best solution, but perhaps such bans in some cities will make a difference to others as well? Maybe the bans only have to be “active” for a small period of time before advertisers “learn their lessons” and begin to think of other ways to sell their products? Maybe this can work as a kind of incentive to actively try re-working the portrayals in ads, to come up with new and better ideas instead of the old sexist notion that they have been re-using for decades.

      Haha, well that would never happen I think but it is an interesting thought to play with. Hm, well I would probably research what other types of ads certain brands made instead, who are used to making overtly sexualized and sexist ones today. It would be interesting to see if they would know what else to do, when they were not allowed to display women as sex objects any more, or if they would just become immobilized and run out of ideas..


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