Collective Shout has been exposing the failures of the advertising industry in Australia for more than a decade. The system of ad industry self-regulation allows advertisers to sexualise, objectify, degrade and demean women with the endorsement of Ad Standards.
Just this week, Ad Standards has released its latest rulings, which indicate that nothing much has changed. The Community Panel has given the green light to three porn-inspired Honey Birdette ads, depicting satanic sex club orgies, exposing women’s genitals, and a woman in a BDSM dog collar, all broadcast to an all-ages audience. We unpack the rulings below.
From the complaint:
This advertisement sexually objectifies and sexualises women. While the woman is shown wearing straps and string loosely referred to as "lingerie" she is virtually naked. The underside of her breasts and her pubic mound are visible in this image.
While acknowledging that the underside of the woman’s breasts and her mons pubis (part of her genitals) were visible due to the sheer nature of the lingerie, the Panel concluded that it was permissible to display a woman’s genitals because “the advertisement did not draw particular focus or attention to any particular body part” and because “her pubic region is partly covered by the text stating the lingerie style name”.
As per usual, the Panel claimed the woman was “confident” as though this mitigates the well-established harms from sexual objectification. Ad Standards' approach is at odds with research finding that “health implications of exposure to sexualised and objectified images of women exist regardless of whether the intention of the images is to empower”. Research indicates that ads that depict women as sexually powerful or sexually confident negatively affects women’s body image (Halliwell, Malson & Tischner 2011).
The Panel concluded the sexualised image of a virtually naked woman was appropriate for the children who would be exposed to it, that “children viewing the advertisement would view a woman standing in a comfortable pose in bright lingerie” and that “there was no sexual messaging or themes in the advertisement which would make it confronting for [young children].” Clearly Ad Standards has failed to engage with any of the research literature outlining the various harms of sexualising children.
From the complaint:
This is classic objectification: the woman is shown as a collection of body parts - not as a whole person. Indeed she’s not presented as a person at all but as an animal to be restrained and choked... children should not be forced to view sexualised, BDSM-themed imagery or to try and make sense of a woman bound by a dog collar and leash.
Yet again, the Panel has demonstrated its inability to grasp the concept of sexual objectification or the documented harms to women and girls from it, describing the pornified image as merely “a depiction of the woman expressing her sexuality”. The Panel concluded that “...the woman was posed in a confident manner consistent with fashion modelling and that she was not posed in a way that could be considered submissive or with an imbalance of sexual power.”
But that is precisely what a sexualised image of a faceless woman with a dog collar around her neck is intended to convey - female submission and an imbalance of power. By cropping off her head, she is stripped of any humanity or identity, and reduced to nothing more than a collection of sexual parts. The dog collar around her neck further dehumanises her, signifying her less-than-human status. In diminishing the woman’s humanity and making her an object for other’s sexual use (and perhaps violence) she is rendered powerless.
The Panel claimed the image did not debase the woman. Who are they kidding?
The Panel also claimed that collars and chokers are common in current fashion and do not necessarily have a fetish suggestion. Except this isn’t merely “current fashion”, it’s a sex shop literally selling fetish gear.
The Panel noted that the image contained products sold by the sex shop and it was therefore reasonable for them to depict them - which means that Honey Birdette is permitted to advertise their ‘Bondage Kits’ (as they are billed on their website) to an audience that includes children. The Panel went as far as to claim “...there was no sexual messaging or themes in the advertisement which would make it confronting for [young children].”
Yet again, Ad Standards has endorsed the sexual objectification of women and enabled a sex shop to promote BDSM fetish wear to an audience that includes children.
From the complaint:
Honey Birdette is advertising their bondage range with a satanic orgy for the school holidays. It's blatantly pornographic and exposes women to harassment and young impressionable youth to view women as sexual objects to be acted upon. The advertising contains imagery that could be scary to children. There is something seriously sick about people who choose to expose children to advertising like this, both Honey Birdette and Westfield included.
Ad Standards concluded that the 666 sex club orgy-themed advertisement “did not draw particular focus or attention to any particular body part” and that no nipples were visible. They determined there was “no suggestion that the people in the advertisement are engaged in sexual activity”. They also argued that “children viewing the advertisement would view a group of people in Halloween costumes or lingerie, and would not view the advertisement as sexualised” and that “there was no sexual messaging or themes in the advertisement which would make it confronting for these audiences.”
According to ACCM, the Australian Council on Children and the Media
the research tells us that scary images cause children much distress, and can cause ongoing harm. This distress is real, and so are the consequences...When children are exposed to an image that does not fit within their schemes of what they know, they tend to attend more closely to try to make sense of the image.
Again, Ad Standards is making unsubstantiated claims that are at odds with scientific research- with little regard for the welfare of children who are harmed by exposure to these ads.
*Update- Ad Standards dismisses complaints against another ad suggestive of violence against women
From the complaint:
This image is not appropriate for public display or for an audience that includes children. It is both highly sexualised and strongly suggestive of violence against women. The devil's mouth is open wide as though he is about to bite the woman and his hand is reaching for her neck. This is within a context where the rise of men choking women during sex has been documented through research, finding that women are being choked without warning by male partners during sex, and that more women report feeling frightened during sex on this basis. The woman is depicted as passive, responding neutrally. The image eroticises men's predation on women.
It will also likely be frightening or upsetting to small children. Honey Birdette have continually demonstrated their contempt for children in exposing them to highly sexualised and pornified imagery despite global research documenting the various harms to children.
Again, disregarding research finding that such images can cause distress to children, Ad Standards dismissed complaints:
The Panel noted that the woman in the advertisement was not restrained and was reaching one hand up to caress the devil character’s face.
The Panel considered that the advertisement featured a devil character which appeared to be about to bite the woman and put his hand around her neck, and this was a depiction which could be considered to be menacing.
The Panel noted that the product being advertised is lingerie and the advertisement’s theme was related to the Halloween promotion for the business.
The Panel noted the woman did not appear distressed by the devil character’s actions. The Panel noted that her hand was caressing the devil’s face and she did not appear to be struggling or wanting to leave the situation ... not suggestive of domestic abuse or violence against women.
..not overly sexualised or inappropriate for the relevant broad audience.
Silence from Male Champions
We know the current system of advertising regulation is a failure. It allows advertisers like Honey Birdette to consistently display sexist and pornified representations of women like these to an all-ages audience with no repercussions. But what are the shopping centres hosting Honey Birdette porn-themed ads doing about it?
Corporate leaders of shopping centre companies Property Male Champions of Change claim to be stamping out everyday sexism in the workplace and community while hosting Honey Birdette’s porn-inspired window displays. The Male Champions of Change new report Disrupting the System – Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace even lists “objectification of women in mainstream media advertising” as an example of sexual harassment.
L-R (Top): Property Male Champions Peter Allen (CEO Scentre Group - Westfield AU), Steve McCann (CEO Lendlease Group), Grant Kelley (CEO Vicinity Centres), Bob Johnston (CEO The GPT Group), Darren Steinberg (CEO Dexus); (Bottom) Steve Conry (CEO JLL Australia), Michael O'Brien (Managing Director Global Real Estate, QIC), John Mulcahy (Chair Mirvac), Daryl Browning (CEO ISPT), Mark Steinert (Managing Director Stockland)
How is accommodating floor-to-ceiling pornified representations of women - some headless, in dog-collars and leads, others in transparent underwear with bare genitals exposed - 'disrupting the system'? What are these Male Champions actually doing to address the sexual objectification of women in their own shopping centres?
Disrupting the system means challenging the status quo. As long as Male Champions host Honey Birdette's porn-themed window displays, they're part of the problem.
CSR begins with men growing a conscience - Mumbrella