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.

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Sexist Advertising Survey

Hello dear readers, time to stop reading and start writing; I would greatly appreciate if you could take 10-15 minutes of your precious time to participate in the following survey:

Sexist Advertising Survey

This survey is open for everyone, anyone, who would like to share some thoughts on the research topic of “Sexist advertising”. No previous knowledge necessary, all that matters are your own personal thoughts.

Cheers a lot!

Two ways a woman can get hurt

Today we had our last lecture in one of the first phd courses, and I held my last presentation, this time about my field of research: sexist advertising. I presented a chapter: Two ways a woman can get hurt: Advertising and Violence,  from Kilbourne’s book Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising (1999). Here, Kilbourne speaks about sex in advertising and how this is similar to pornography since it is more about dehumanizing, objectifying and disconnecting than it is about reality. Violence is encouraged in many ads, men are shown to be in power, dominant, to take control, heck, take whatever they want, while women are portrayed as never saying no, or at least, not meaning no when they say it. Women are encouraged by ads to be attracted to the hostile and indifferent men, often the ones that in real life would be absolutely dangerous. Violence is also trivialized, and rape is glorified. Kilbourne argues about the objectification being different for women and men: when women are objectified they are so in a cultural context where this objectification is constant, and where there are serious consequences, from economic discrimination to violence. For men, the consequences are not the same since their bodies are generally not routinely judged and invaded, they are not as likely to get harassed, raped or beaten by women, as women are by men. This is eloquently described and summed up:

“When power is unequal, when one group is oppressed and discriminated against as a group, when there is a context of systemic and historical oppression, stereotypes and prejudice have different weight and meaning.”

Now, that is not to say that the objectification of men is any better, all objectification is bad of course. It is always bad to objectify a person. However, it is important to understand that the objectification looks very different when it comes to women and men. After all, we are not equal in the eyes of the ads.

After my presentation we had a very long discussion that was both interesting, fruitful and extremely frustrating and upsetting. At one point, I was boiling, it came after one of my male colleagues said that it is in the nature of women to want to be looked at by men, and it is in the men’s nature to want to look at women. Nature. Nature? Needless to say, this really heated up the debate with him on one side and practically the rest of us on the other with arguments about the social construction of reality. About the fact that women are not born with an innate desire to be ogled by men, that it is not something in our blood, but rather in the way we are brought up, taught by society to want to look pretty, to want to be wanted. It is something that we daily must think about, decide about. It is about the constant male gaze that is surrounding us all. Quietly, subtly.

It is not in our nature. It is in our heads.

Victoria’s real secret

A recent photo from the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret has received some negative attention due to it’s tasteless and poor photoshopping. Finally. How nice to see all those comments highlighting one of the problems with such ads: too damn much photoshopping. My heart literally swelled while reading many of the comments cause it tells me that there is still hope. One day we might even be rid of all these flawless, objectifying and unreal portrayals of women altogether. How lovely that would be..

But as of now, we are not quite there, and just for the heck of it I’ll jump in the discussion and review the ad in question:

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Wanna know Victoria’s real secret? Well here it is: Photoshop! The model used in this image was no question already skinny on the verge of anorectic, otherwise they would most likely not even had used her. But still, skinny is not skinny enough. Beautiful is not beautiful enough. Nice skin is not nice enough, not until it looks absolutely flawless and “perfect”, not until all the hairs, cracks, pores, wrinkles and everything else that makes skin, well, skin, is retouched into looking like plastic. As some of the negative comments already suggested, her exposed arm has lost some meat/muscle, and her poor butt cheek has been photoshopped into oblivion. I can’t imagine how a woman that actually had that body (ps. there is no such woman so don’t even try looking for her) would manage to sit down properly, but maybe she doesn’t sit. Maybe she just always stands against a dark mysterious wall with her hands up and her legs spread.
How awful for her.

The problem with this image is not just that it is exaggeratedly photoshopped, it is also the way they portray her: Passive, anonymous, just waiting for someone to grab her from behind. She is sexualized in a very disturbing and suggestively violent way. I would even go so far as to saying that she kind of looks like a soon-to-be-rape-victim. And all this just to sell panties. Really?

It’s time to grow up and smell the cracks, pores, wrinkles and natural “flaws” that all people have Victoria’s secret, time to take some damned responsibility and stop objectifying and distorting women just to sell underwear (!). Trust me that can be done without putting down women and contributing to the sexist male gaze and the objectification of women. If you want women to like your underwear and buy them, how about not first making them feel like shit cause they cannot possibly ever achieve the same kind of unnatural and photoshopped “flawlessness” that you are cramming down their throats? How about not trying to fool them into thinking that your panties are magic and can make them look like this, cause seriously, come on. It’s panties. Just panties. It won’t change you, it won’t make you feel better about who you really are, it won’t erase your “flaws”, or even your butt cheeks. It’s just plain old panties. And photoshop.

So now that your secret is out “Victoria”, how about instead making women feel beautiful for who they are, flaws and all?

The “Sex Sells” conundrum

Just read this interesting article with Jean Kilbourne, and as always, she continues to inspire me with hope. I know things are looking grim in this field, but it’s a matter of spreading awareness, of voicing your concerns, of saying No when you’ve had enough.

I think there is a paradox surrounding the world of sexist ads: they all seem to stick to the cliché that “sex sells”. However, there is no real way of knowing how true this is. Since advertisers sell “sex”, people buy “sex”. It’s as simple as that. And when they stop selling it, people will stop buying it. This is the conundrum, kind of like the egg and the hen; which came first? Which is the result of what? Just because A: people buy products with sexist ads, does not necessarily mean B: sexist ads increase product sales. I mean, I don’t really believe that people way-back-when started to riot on the streets and demand that the ads be sexier, rather, the ads became sexier, and the people adjusted, more or less, to this kind of imagery. Nevertheless, even the ads that do not use the “sex sells” argument manage to sell their products. How on earth they do that is beyond me, I mean really, no sexual imagery, no objectification, and people still buy things?! Wow.. (I am re-he-heeeally trying to underline my sarcasm here, hope it shows..). So, basically, there is no proof that ads using sex should sell more than those that don’t, however, they might well sell a whole lot nowadays, since this is the imagery we have gotten used to. BUT, just because you are used to something, does not mean it is good. It does not mean that it shouldn’t change. So instead of clinging to the “sex sells” argument, how about trying to prove it wrong instead?

I remember a couple of years ago I was watching television, the Swedish channel 6, when this ridiculously sexist commercial came on. It was about the fact that the channel was now going to show two films each Friday, and for that, they decided to cut in images of half naked women in between the clips of the movies that were airing. Their tagline was something like this: “Do you like double-sandwiches? How about this double-sandwich?” (Cut: half naked lady, clip from movie, half naked lady). Very clever indeed… Needless to say, I was shocked in disbelief for about a minute after seeing the commercial, then the shock dissolved into complete rage and frustration. I immediately sat down by the computer, googled the channel to get hold of their contact info and then I set out to write an e-mail voicing my disgust and anger towards their utterly stupid and degrading commercial.

The next day I got to read an article stating that the channel had stopped airing their commercial due to many people contacting them and accusing them of sexism. I was happy to read that there were more people than me who got upset and took action, cause that is exactly what is needed in situations like these. Just as Kilbourne argues:

“The best bet is to put your money where your values are, and if you don’t support Calvin Klein, tell them you can’t stand the way they advertise.”

Really, it’s as simple as this: When you see sexist and objectifying ads and commercials that upset you, instead of ignoring them and moving on, why not speaking up about it? Explaining why they bother you directly to the source, demanding that they stop using the same tired imagery that degrades and dehumanizes both women and men. If more people did this, I am sure we would eventually see some changes around us. If more people expressed their concerns and frustrations, the advertisers would not be able to get away with the “sex sells” argument anymore. And how nice would that be, for a change?

 

 

The sad cynical guessing game

Small online quizzes seem to be very popular these days, some better than others, some darn right pointless (why would I want to take a quiz to find out what my favorite flavor of ice-cream is, or what mood I am in, I already know that damnit!).

However, this one about sexist ads I found quite interesting. I scored only 6 out of 16, and some of those ads I’d seen before so I already knew the answers. How sad is that? Of course, you can answer in different ways: You can go with the answer that you actually think it is, and due to the fact that you have grown up in a world full of such ads you are fairly cynical regarding these and know that they are not about what they seem to be about, so you would then of course get the right answer probably most of the time. OR: You can answer what you, based on the imagery, really think it should be about. This second way would of course be the most obvious one in a better world, but unfortunately, we live in a world where ads like these are thought up, designed, created and published:

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Now in the quiz I guessed it was for a hair product, even though I did not really get the point of it. I feared that the answer would be the night club and prepared myself to be upset. But not even in my wildest imagination would I have guessed this was an ad for organ donation. When the quiz revealed the text and logo, I think my heart just sunk.
Is this really the best way to make people become organ donors? Also, it seems that they are basically only looking for male donors, seeing as how I, at least as a straight woman, would not like to get anywhere inside that poor girl, so I guess my female kidneys aren’t good enough? Right then! Not only is this pure unadulterated sexism, which marginalizes, degrades and offends women, but it is also making organ donation feel extremely creepy. Who in their right mind would like to become organ donors after seeing this? I have absolutely nothing against organ donation, it’s wonderful that so many are given second chances because of it, but this ad is just making me sick and I cannot understand what the hell they were thinking. How about having some self respect for yourself and the organisation/company you work for, how about not stooping to others low levels and degrading women in this washed out, clichéd and tired way? How about having some faith in humanity and portraying the best we can be, instead of the most creepy, disgusting and objectifying bastards that we seem to be?

Women’s football

Yesterday I received this link from an acquaintance who figured it would interest me, and indeed, I was intrigued. Apparently there is some debate going on in Ireland regarding an advertisement for women’s football, and while I am not all that interested in women’s football, or men’s football, or any sports for that matter, I am very interested in advertisements. Here is the ad in question:

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It features a woman holding a football as if it were her pregnant belly, and it says “The most important nine months of a woman’s life“, referring to the football season January to September.

While some seem to praise the ad for bringing attention to women’s football, others are not that thrilled:

“Complaints suggested that the ad reduces women to “baby-making machines” instead of football players and that it places gender at the centre of its message, instead of sport.”

This kind of sums it up nicely, I think. After seeing and researching so many sexist ads, I’ve found that a very common problem is the fact that they use imagery which places gender, sex, nudity and so forth in the centre, instead of highlighting what they are actually about. And this is what makes so many ads sexist. It is not sexist to make an ad about a pregnant woman, but if you make an ad about women’s football, why not just let it be about women’s bloody football? Of course, one could argue that hey they are trying to be clever! But clever sexism, is still sexism, no matter how you sugar-coat it, it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Just for kicks, how would it be if this ad was about men’s football? Of course, the pregnant belly would be kind of ridiculous so you would have to adjust the ad for it to be relevant for men. So how about this: Same general design as this ad but instead there is a man standing in profile holding two footballs were his “other” balls are, and the caption would read “The most important balls in a man’s life“. Would that be sexist? Well.. yeah, it would. The sad thing is though, while this made-up ad would probably never even be created, the other one is real.