A code of ethics that ignores sexism is a roadblock to equality

"Sexism is not always obviously violent, exploitative or degrading. It can be unintended or disguised innocently as humour, but it is always insidious, offensive to and exclusionary of its victims."

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In Australia we have a self regulatory advertising system. This system is in place to (supposedly) ensure that "advertisements and other forms of marketing communications are legal, decent, honest and truthful and that they have been prepared with a sense of obligation to the consumer and society and a sense of fairness and responsibility to competitors."

As part of this system a 'code of ethics' was drawn up. Each time a complaint is made the Advertising Standards Board goes back to this code to see if the ad is in breach of one or more of the codes. But how effective can the code of ethics be when it completely ignores sexism? 

A case study: Petersham Inn

Recently a complaint was made about a bar in Sydney due their "Hot Girls Eat Free" poster in the window. 


Some of the complaints made to the advertising standards board included:

"I object to the suggestion that a woman's entitlement to specific offers from this establishment are entirely dependent on their willingness to conform to the presumably male management's perception of their sex appeal."

"It is sexist and derogatory towards women and is an example of the unrealistic portrayal of women in advertising. It offends me and I would hate for any young woman to see it and to think that that is what society expects her to be."

"It's offensive and promotes the objectification of women when there is clear evidence that this sort of behaviour creates an environment in which violence against women exists."

"Children, young women and adults alike walk past this sign regularly. It suggests that women have no value except for how they look." 

In making a determination the board look at the code of ethics. Section 2 of the code includes


2.1 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not portray people or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political belief.

2.2 Advertising or marketing communications should not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people.

2.3 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not present or portray violence unless it is justifiable in the context of the product or service advertised.

2.4 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience.

2.5 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall only use language which is appropriate in the circumstances (including appropriate for the relevant audience and medium). Strong or obscene language shall be avoided.

2.6 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety

This is what the board said when making their determination:

"The Board noted that the complainants find the concept of awarding something on the basis of attractiveness to be objectifying and demeaning and that the use of ‘hot girls’ is also objectifying. However the Board noted that the Code does not prohibit such advertising unless the advertising material could be considered to be discriminatory or vilifying." (Bold mine)

So whilst the advertisement objectifies women, the board can't do anything about that because there is nothing written into the code about objectification. This is just one of many cases where the Advertising Standards Board have not been able to intervene due to inadequate code of ethics. 

The Advertising Standards Board gives a green light to harmful content

The research is quite clear that sexually objectifying portrayals of women are harmful.  There are serious concerns over the impact of exposure to this content on others’ impressions of women and on women’s views of themselves.

Exposure can lead to:

  • higher levels of body dissatisfaction
  • greater self-objectification
  • greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs
  • greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women
  • leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity

So the Advertising Standards Board are giving the green light to harmful advertising because the code of ethics that was originally put together is missing a crucial element. 

The Advertising Standards Board gives a green light to content that lays a foundation for violence against women

Our Watch’s website contains some really important information about the drivers of violence against women:


Violence against women is serious and prevalent. It is primarily driven by gender inequality, and reinforced or exacerbated by a number of other factors.

Gender inequality is a situation in which women and men do not have equal power, resources or opportunities, and that their voices, ideas and work are not valued equally by society.

Gender inequality provides the underlying social conditions for violence against women. It operates at many levels – from social and cultural norms (the dominant ideas about men and women in a society), to economic structures (such as the pay gap between men and women), to organisational, community, family and relationship practices.

And Make the Link also address this on their website:

Violence against women is based upon a foundation of unequal power between men and women, something that has been embedded historically in our society and in our relationships. We see this imbalance acted out in many ways, even today. It is in the jokes we tell, the language we use and in the way that men and women are represented in all types of media.

To overthrow the epidemic of violence in our community we must start at the very beginning and shake the foundation that supports it. You can start to do this today. Gender stereotyping and sexist jokes are present in most of our lives, we see them and hear them everywhere we go.

They are not harmless.


So let me get this straight...the Advertising Standards Board are giving the green light to advertisements that contribute to gender inequality and lay the foundation for violence against women. So while our government is executing The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children we have a self regulatory advertising system that gives a big thumbs up to sexism and objectification. Anyone else see how messed up this is? 

Three academics noticed this same point and wrote about it recently in The Conversation.

They say: Sexism is not always obviously violent, exploitative or degrading. It can be unintended or disguised innocently as humour, but it is always insidious, offensive to and exclusionary of its victims.


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There's a world of difference between sex and sexism in advertising

25 reasons that Ad Industry Self Regulation is a Disaster


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