Ad Standards' bizarre ruling on sexual harassment ad
Honey Birdette consistently disregards advertising standards by broadcasting sexist and pornified representations of women to an all-ages audience. To date, Ad Standards has investigated complaints against 89 Honey Birdette ads, upholding complaints 43 times. Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan refuses to comply with rulings, and has on multiple occasions expressed her outrage over Ad Standards to the media, describing them as “frightening” and “archaic”.
None of this is good for Ad Standards, who claim that the current system of industry self-regulation is effective, citing high rates of advertiser compliance. Repeated violations from serial offenders like Honey Birdette, and repeated refusal to abide by rulings, would likely have a negative impact on Ad Standards rates of compliance statistics, and undermine their claims of a successful system.
But Ad Standards’ compliance statistics would remain high if there were no rulings for Honey Birdette to comply with, if complaints against Honey Birdette ads were dismissed, or not even considered.
Recent Ad Standards case reports not only document the dismissal of porn-themed Honey Birdette advertising, the Panel appears to be openly advocating for the advertiser, and supplying imagined justifications for sexist and objectifying imagery, even where the advertiser has not provided a response.
Complaints dismissed against Honey Birdette sexual harassment ad
Ad Standards dismissed complaints against a still image posted on Honey Birdette’s Facebook and Instagram.
The complaint reads:
Sexually objectifies women, showing a woman in lingerie with the top of her head cut off. Depicts an act of sexual aggression against airport ground crew with a woman in lingerie standing over a ground crew worker while grabbing her face. Sexualises female ground crew, suggesting that sexual advances are something they might welcome. Uses the phrase "mile-high affair" invoking the idea of the "mile-high club" which is having sex on an air craft. This is anti-social behaviour which may also be a criminal offence. Glorifying this behaviour causes problems for air crew, specifically flight attendants who have to deal with this conduct.
In response to the first issue raised in the complaint, the sexual objectification of women made clear by cropping the top of the model’s head from the image, Ad Standards supplied a justification for not including the model’s head- again, despite the fact that no such justification was provided by the advertiser.
The Panel considered that the depiction of the woman with only part of her head visible was not dehumanising of the woman, rather the image focussed on the lingerie product and highlighted the detail of the product which would not have been evident in a longer shot... The Panel considered the woman was shown standing in a way which accentuated the product.
What basis do Ad Standards have to rule that sexual objectification- cropping a model’s head from an image but leaving a sexualised representation of her body- was not dehumanising? Ad Standards ignores decades of research documenting the harms of sexual objectification, substituting it with their own uninformed judgment.
The second issue raised in the complaint is the sexualised portrayal of female cabin crew, who are portrayed as though they welcome sexual advances, and how this might put women in these professions at risk.
The Panel considered that the depiction of a woman in lingerie is not of itself a depiction of sexual intercourse, sexual stimulation or suggestive behaviour. The Panel noted the phrase ‘Have a mile-high affair’ but considered that this phrase was used in relation to the airport theme of the advertisement however considered that the phrase is a well known reference to sex on a plane.
The Panel noted the complainant’s concern regarding the image condoning inappropriate behaviour towards airline staff but considered that this was an unlikely interpretation. The Panel considered that there is no imagery or language which suggests or encourages unwanted sexual advances towards airline staff.
The ad depicts a female member of ground crew staff being caressed by a lingerie-clad model, and it is paired with the caption “Have a mile-high affair”, a well-known reference to sex on a plane. What is Ad Standards talking about? Why should they ignore the content of the ad and claim the mile-high reference was “used in relation to the airport theme” when the advertiser has not even made any such claims? Why are they defending advertisers?
The Panel noted that the advertisement depicts a standing woman in lingerie touching the face of a seated woman dressed in an airline staff uniform, and the staff member’s hand is on the leg of the woman in lingerie. The Panel noted that the woman dressed in a uniform did not appear to be uncomfortable, and noted that her hand on the woman in lingerie’s leg indicated a degree of reciprocation.
In short, the Panel claimed the ad did not encourage inappropriate sexual advances towards female airline staff because the woman did not appear to be uncomfortable, and appeared to be reciprocating. But this is precisely the problem- the ad portrays female airline staff as though they welcome sexual advances, when in reality this is the very sexual harassment flight attendant unions are fighting to discourage.
It's time for a change
Female and male cabin crew have slammed Honey Birdette’s harmful sexualising portrayals of female cabin crew, sharing their own experiences of rampant sexual harassment. Experts have documented the harms of sexualising and sexually objectifying representations of women. Ad Standards ignores them both, and instead advocates for Honey Birdette.
Recent case reports show the Panel asserting the 'intent' of the advertiser in order to justify sexually objectifying imagery, even when the advertiser has not submitted a response. Previously, the Panel ruled Honey Birdette's "ultimate bondage babe" image was intended "to evoke a feeling of strength", and that the choice to exclude the woman's face from the sexualised image was "not an attempt to suggest she is an object...but rather a creative choice relating to the theme and style of the photograph". In another instance, Ad Standards dismissed complaints over Honey Birdette shopfront advertising depicting a chained woman's torso in BDSM gear, claiming that "the close-up nature of the advertisement was to focus on the detail of the product", again with nothing from the advertiser to suggest this was the case.
We need a system of advertising regulation that works. We can’t trust Ad Standards to act in the interests of the community- it’s time for a change.