The following is a complaint to Ad Standards we received from a supporter. The complaint was made in response to a Bras N Things advertisement featuring a woman wearing nothing but lacy panties and in bold red font, the words “THE TAKE IT ALL OFF SALE.”Read more
Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Collective Shout. She co-edited Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry.
We share in the Commons. This is a very old term that refers to public spaces inherited by, belonging to and affecting a community - the shared places in which we all live and move, work and play.
But our public spaces are contaminated, the commons mismanaged. No one has exclusive rights to these spaces, but advertisers too often engage in visual and psychological pollution, as if the commons belong exclusively to them.
This pollution happens most frequently in the presentation of women for gratification, consumption and profit. Corporate Social Responsibility, to which most companies now lay claim, is not reflected in images of women topless, having violence done to them, made submissive by fear, on their backs, up for it, adorning, adoring, decorative objects with nothing to offer but their sex. They are presented as passive, vulnerable, headless, short of clothing, as sex aids - and sometimes dead.
Why do advertisers address women in these ways, instead of in a way consistent with their dignity as persons? Why do they address the commons itself in a broadside against the very possibility of a civil society, respectful of the dignity of all?
Public advertising that addresses women in this manner conditions expectations and behaviour, and cultivates gender stereotypes in how we see and recognize others. Pioneering advertising critic Dr Jean Kilbourne, of the famed Killing Us Softly series, points out that ads do more than sell products: "They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be."
Public advertising tells us who we are and who we should be in gendered terms: men are persons of entitlement and power with clothes on, and women are ... not.
In a meta-analysis of published research in peer-reviewed English-language journals between 1995 and 2015, Monique Ward found that exposure to sexualized content results in a "diminished view of women's competence, morality, and humanity":
"A total of 109 publications that contained 135 studies were reviewed. The findings provided consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women's competence, morality, and humanity."
We need to address the power of corporations to shape this diminished view of women's competence, morality and humanity. But within this contaminated global commons in which we are all subject to this sensory assault, there arises some hope.
On 28 March, the Council of Paris voted for a new contract for outdoor advertising. From January 2018, the successful outdoor advertising company J.C. Decaux is required to forego advertising that propagates sexist, homophobic, ageist, ethnic and religious discrimination, along with "degrading" or "dehumanizing" depictions of people and "images that adversely affect human dignity."
In a statement, Mayor Anne Hidalgo condemned advertising that teaches women that their degradation is acceptable: "The consequences of these degrading representations have an important impact on women, especially younger ones. They maintain ordinary sexism and help to trivialize a form of everyday violence." Hidalgo said it was time for Paris to follow the lead of London and Geneva and take similar steps toward halting the "spread, promotion and valorisation of images that degrade certain categories of citizens."
The Council's move took place against the background of Saint Laurent's Fall 2017 "porno chic" ad campaign. Ultra-thin women in fishnet stockings and stiletto roller skates were depicted splay-legged and draped over furniture. The Guardian reported that critics characterized the advertisements as "incitement to rape," with the French feminist group Osez le Feminisme! ("Dare to be Feminist!") demanding the "extremely violent" ads be removed. The campaign "ticks all the sexist boxes," said Osez le Feminisme! spokesperson Raphaelle Remy-Leleu. "The women are objectified, hyper-sexualized and put in submissive positions."
Stephane Martin, head of France's advertising regulator ARPP, which bars "degrading and humiliating" representations of people, instructed Saint Laurent to remove the posters after receiving many complaints about them. The advertising measures are connected to other policies against violence against women (VAW) in France, including the 2016 law to strengthen the fight against the prostitution system.
Under Mayor Hidalgo, Paris has developed an advertising campaign against the purchase and pimping of women. Paris has done what our cities should do. Yet, here in Australia our governments and regulatory bodies - while paying lip service to ending sexism and violence against women - continue to place the vested interests of advertisers over the wellbeing of the community.
A significant number of government inquiries and recommendations related to the impact of advertising, particularly sexualized imagery, on the community include:
- The inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media environment reported in June 2008. The committee stated: "This is a community responsibility which demands action by society. In particular, the onus is on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take account of these community concerns." However, close to a decade later, almost all the recommendations - including for pre-vetting of ads, the establishment of a complaints clearing house to make it easier to send a complaint, and that a review of steps taken by industry bodies to address community concerns should take place 18 months later - have not been implemented.
- In the 2011 inquiry into the regulation of outdoor advertising, the report (promisingly entitled Reclaiming Public Space) recommended that the Attorney General's Department investigate unrestricted display of racist or sexualised images in the public sphere in the context of anti-discrimination legislation. That didn't happen. The report also recommended that if self-regulation was found to be lacking, the Department would impose a self-funded co-regulatory system with government input and conduct five yearly reviews. The system has been found to be lacking, but nothing has changed to fix it.
- A Queensland inquiry into outdoor advertising in January 2014 recommended a co-regulatory approach. This was dismissed by the State government which "considers the current system is mostly effective in regulating advertisers." Recommendations from a 2014 West Australia inquiry also met with a lukewarm response from government.
- The terms of reference for last year's NSW inquiry into the sexualisation of children came to nothing. Remarkably, while tasked with examining the "adequacy of current measures to regulate sexual imagery in media and advertising" and while acknowledging strong evidence of harm, and that "concrete steps be taken" to eliminate the impact, advertising didn't rate a mention in a single recommendation.
- The Domestic Violence and Gender Inequality report of the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, also tabled at the end of last year, noted concerns about how gender roles and stereotypes can be reinforced and sustained through popular culture and media, yet failed to put forward any new policy to address this.
Governments continue to offload their ethical duties to citizens. Ours is a system that relies on complaints: citizens are required to do the regulating because of a "hands off" approach. While I'm all for civic responsibility, the dismissal of complaints and the terms by which they are dismissed make the job too difficult.
There are no pre-vetting of ads before posting - such as a bestiality image in the middle of Sydney's CBD to promote Fox studio's Sexpo advertising on buses in school zones, billboards for sex clubs overlooking school playgrounds, General Pants shop windows covered with posters of women being stripped, and glamourized sexual violence as a marketing tool for companies like Calvin Klein and Wicked Campers spreading misogyny on every corner.
There are, moreover, no penalties for non-compliance. Despite complaints upheld against Wicked Camper vans for racist, misogynist and homophobic slogans and images, the company continues to ignore Advertising Standards Board rulings. The response of the shopping mall sex shop Honey Birdette to a recent board ruling was a contemptuous: "No one tells Honey Birdette when to take down her signage!"
Because so many complaints are dismissed and so few upheld, and because of the language in which dismissals are phrased, a message is sent that this kind of advertising is tolerable. The case-by-case approach to responding to individual complaints does not acknowledge the "drip-drip effect" - that is, the cumulative impact of all of it across society and over time. The way in which we absorb these messages is not on a case-by-case basis.
Those concerned about the treatment of women and girls in this hostile environment, and who are fighting for sexist advertising to be viewed as contrary to our anti-discrimination laws, are tired of their evidence-based concerns being dismissed by those tasked with governing for the common good. As my colleague Laura McNally, who is completing a PhD on Corporate Social Responsibility, writes, we have to tackle a culture of sexual objectification if we are to make any inroads in efforts to address violence against women:
"Sexual objectification creates a culture of impunity toward violence against girls and women. One where abusers feel justified because 'she wanted it'. And one where girls feel disallowed to speak out because they are seen as mere objects. Objectification not only undermines gender equality but also thwarts efforts to reduce issues like violence against women. As documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne says turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person. The focus needs to shift, instead of scrutinising or blaming the girls and women affected, we must scrutinise the culture and industry that makes sexual objectification so widely accepted and increasingly expected of girls and women."
The only changes that happen are when activist groups like Collective Shout (of I'm a co-founder) force companies to change due to hard-hitting campaigns exposing their corporate social irresponsibility. And, to address the glaring gap in governance, Collective Shout has launched a social responsibility initiative for ethical business behaviour. Companies are invited to sign the Corporate Social Responsibility pledge, which is a statement of intention not to objectify women and sexualize girls in products, services and advertising.
Those of us who have spent more than a decade tracking the multiple abuses in the system look wistfully toward Paris and ask: why can't this be done here? Why would our government want to protect an industry that has shown little regard for the wellbeing of children and young people, who are especially harmed by advertising that conveys to them distorted ideas about their bodies, relationships and sexuality? Why doesn't it compel the industry to act consistently with laws against discrimination and for equality?
What is the point of government-funded programs in schools to teach boys how to respect girls, while the government remains complacent in a broader culture that is wallpapered with images that teach them disrespect?
The Australian government has its own obligations to social responsibility - namely, our government is a signatory of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Goal 3 of the MDGs is gender equality and empowerment of women. The Australian government has an obligation to action and report against this target, but also to collaborate with corporates in achieving them. Yet, the advertising industry remains free to shore up gender inequality with degrading and exploitative imagery in the public space. Not only are corporates regularly violating their own obligations to social responsibility, but the Australian government fails here too.
Governments across the globe are holding big polluters to account. Industries like oil and gas are increasingly expected to redress the health impacts of their environmental pollution. When will advertisers be held to account for the psychological harms of their visual pollution?
As citizens, we are not allowed to let our dogs defecate in public. Paris has decided that advertisers too, can no longer pollute the commons. Australia should do the same. Free markets shouldn't have unfettered freedom to demean women and girls in advertising and marketing. Australia, it's time to follow Paris.
A Melbourne based shoe designer has attracted complaints over a sexually objectifying image on their Facebook page depicting a series of semi-naked, headless women wearing their shoes.
Facebook users weighed in on Preston Zly Design’s photo, with a series of witty and insightful comments:
“But why does the model have to take her pants off to sell shoes?”
“Hi, can you please clarify, will I be able to wear these shoes if I have a head attached to my body? Also I put clothes on prior to my shoes, will these shoes still work with my dressing style?”
“Can we expect similar ads for men’s footwear with headless men missing their clothing also, or is it just sexual exploitation of women that sells shoes?”
“I don’t need nudes to sell me shoes.”
“Women are not inanimate objects and selling to us by exploiting us isn’t edgy.”
“Oh look, headless bodies of young, thin, conventionally attractive white women being used to sell a product. How artistic! So revolutionary and challenging! It’s almost like this outdated and sexist practice hasn’t gone on for decades!”
Designer Johanna Preston responded,
“We are not clothing designers- it’s all about the shoes here” – as if featuring clothed female models is a skill limited to clothing designers.
“The images aren’t exploitative- but if you choose to think they are that’s your prerogative.
“I understand that the use of the female body offends you but we are proud of our work and stand behind our beautiful shoot.”
But the use of women’s bodies as props, the depiction of women without faces, the treatment of women as interchangeable and the use of women’s near naked bodies to sell a product is objectification- whether it is acknowledged or not, whether it offends or not.
There is a wealth of research on the harms of objectifying women- decades of it- finding that this sexist treatment leads both men and women to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality and humanity. In short, treating women like things is bad for women.
It’s hard to understand how in 2018, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and with a growing awareness of the scourge of men’s violence against women, companies can continue to exploit women’s bodies to sell a product.
“Why do girls’ dysfunctional clothes prioritise their looks over their freedom? And why do we parents buy them?”
A recent article on SBS described a mother’s frustration over the process of trying to buy appropriate clothing and footwear for her young daughter. Most of the clothing is designed to be pretty rather than comfortable or practical. Louise Wedgwood writes:
When shopping for my eldest, a boy, it’s a breeze to find shoes that are comfortable to play in and practical for parks and puddles.
When I stood in front of the girls’ sections in three different major retailers, I was perplexed each time. Why is almost EVERYTHING pink, frilly or sparkly? How are pale fabrics and glittery finishes to withstand the rigours of play?
On that first naive shoe-buying mission at my local shopping centres, I was desperate to go home with something. So I bought the most practical shoes I could find – Mary Janes in a sparkly rose gold canvas, and glittery jelly sandals.
From birth, girls’ “cutest” outfits are usually dresses. But they can be unwieldy to move in, and girls in dresses are discouraged from climbing, hanging upside down or doing anything else fun that might show their undies.
I’ve unwittingly restricted my daughter with dresses. We were given a sweet purple cotton dress with white polka dots, buttons down the back and contrasting frills on the edges. I popped it on my daughter for a playdate with a baby boy the same age, around 10 months old. They were both eager explorers but she kept getting tangled in the skirt and couldn’t crawl in it, navigate stairs or climb onto furniture. As soon as we got home, I changed her into leggings.
If an alien landed in any of our major retailers, you could forgive them for assuming girls and boys are different species. Girls’ t-shirts encourage them to be "sweet and fun" and "hug your heart out". Meanwhile boys' shirts instruct them to “say yes to new adventures”, “fly away with me” and be superheroes.”
Both boys’ and girls’ slogans limit them to narrow stereotypes but the girls’ are particularly uninspiring. “Those companies are selling sexism, basically, the idea of a subordinate female or a dominant male,” according to Dr Hannah McCann, a gender studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a range of businesses and industries have been forced to re-examine their business practices. Last month, Formula One announced their decision to discontinue the practice of using ‘Grid Girls’, recognising the use of women as accessories was not in line with modern societal norms.
More recently, large automakers Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co and Ssangyong have all shied away from the tradition of using attractive women to sell cars. Ssangyong’s “booth babes” will be replaced by male and female models in sportswear, and Nissan has stopped hiring fashion models.
Photo by Saso Domijan
“Times have changed,” said Sara Jenkins, Nissan spokesperson. “It makes more sense to use product specialists because we’re selling cars.”
Bloomberg reported on the changes:
Lexus, the luxury brand of the world’s second-biggest carmaker, Toyota, confirmed it’s dropping models altogether at the Swiss event, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is said to have canceled contracts with several female models over concern about being criticized on #MeToo. The maker of the Maserati, Jeep and Alfa Romeo nameplates will instead feature men as well as women in less flesh-exposing garb than in previous years, two people with knowledge of the plans said.
This is in sharp contrast with 2017, when Alfa Romeo’s display had women in little black dresses hovering around its Stelvio crossover. Nearby, a brunette with a beehive hairdo and a bottom-grazing sixties-style dress kicked up her red heels next to a Fiat 500. At Lexus, a woman in an off-the-shoulder burgundy gown was stationed beside one of its sedans.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, exposing the epidemic of men’s sexual exploitation of women, the casual sexism and objectification of women must be recognised as a significant contributing factor. There can be no gender equality while women continue to be treated as eye candy or props, valued primarily for their physical attractiveness. It’s great to see positive steps forward.
Car parts and services chain Ultra Tune have a long history of sexually exploitative advertising. From rubber-clad dominatrix women brandishing whips and feigning arousal at the sight of tyres, to countless ads perpetuating sexist stereotypes of women as ‘dumb blondes’ who can’t operate their vehicles and who accidentally drive off of cliffs, Ultra Tune has attracted a massive amount of complaints, from men and women.Read more
It was in 2013 that women’s surf brand Roxy was slammed for their sexist “all sex no surf” Pro Biarritz trailer. The video, a promotion for the upcoming women’s surf competition, featured a faceless and half-naked woman writhing around on a bed, stripping off and entering the shower and catching zero waves.
Three time women’s world longboard champion Cori Schumacher started a petition that attracted over 22,000 signatures, calling on the brand to stop sexualising women in their marketing and advertising:
Recently, Roxy released a trailer for the 2013 Roxy Biarritz Pro contest that showcases a style of marketing women’s surfing that is not conducive to a healthy, empowered vision of women. Instead of women surfers being presented as an alternative to the sexualisation and objectification of women in the culture-at-large, this campaign succumbs to the lazy marketing that is already so prevalent.
As the most visible and well-known women’s surf brand, Roxy has a unique opportunity to truly make a difference in how women and girls are represented in the world.
We ask that you stop the sexualisation of women in your marketing and advertising and instead, help to present women surfers in a light that women can be proud to be associated with and young girls can truly admire.
Five years later, Roxy have launched a new global campaign, entitled ‘Make Wave, Move Mountains’ to “promote a message of strength and support to young women of any age, sport, or dream.”
Roxy is not the only brand making major changes. In 2016 Unilever, the company that owns Lynx, a brand of men’s deodorant with a long history of sexist advertising, released the following statement from Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed:
“The time is right for us as an industry to challenge and change how we portray gender in our advertising. Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner.”
Photo: A compilation of sexist Lynx ads over the years.
Just last year, burger joint Carl’s Jr, with a reputation for sexually exploiting women in their porn-inspired commercials, claimed they were changing their ways, ditching the sexualisation of women and instead focusing on ingredients and taste.
This change of direction in advertising from a range of brands is evidence of a greater cultural shift that is underway, one in which sexism and the exploitation of women to sell products and services is no longer tolerated. Corporates are starting to recognise that sexual exploitation does not necessarily sell.
These changes are in large part because of those of us who have consistently challenged the sexualisation and objectification of women and girls in media, advertising and popular culture. As always, thank you for your ongoing support and let’s continue keeping up the pressure!
A Collective Shout supporter has been offered a $200 voucher from Ultra Tune after making a complaint to their Head Office.
In what appears to be a cut and paste form letter, Ultra Tune National Customer Service Manager Tania Plumpton utilises a range of justifications for the company’s routine sexism.
“We are sorry that you hate our advertisements sexist toward women” (sic)
Ms Plumpton assures the complainant that Ultra Tune’s Executive Chairman, Sean Buckley “stands by” the ads (what a relief). Sean Buckley has previously insisted that the ads are funny, despite overwhelming feedback from the public that they are sexist and juvenile.
“Only 300 complaints were made”
According to Ms Plumpton, only 300 people complained about their latest “Unexpected Situations” ad (only 300!) which amounts to “0.006% of the audience”- with the implication being those who objected to the ad were a tiny minority.
It doesn’t work like that. In fact, research on customer complaints suggests that 96% of unhappy customers don’t complain (although 91% of these will not return), or that for every 26 unhappy customers, only one will lodge a formal complaint. Ultra Tune received 300.
Those of us who have ever made a formal complaint about an advertisement to the ASB know how difficult this process can be. The fact that more complaints are not being made is not an indication of community acceptance, but rather, a difficult and ineffective complaints process.
As advertising is not pre-vetted, it is up to members of the community to find the time to make a formal complaint for offending ads to be investigated in the first place. Many people are not aware that they can even make a complaint, or who they might complain to. Complainants must be able to describe the ad, including the channel it was on and at what time. Many others may be dissuaded from making a complaint given the process has consistently failed to lead to any successful outcome, leaving complainants to believe that making complaints is a waste of time and deterring them from bothering in the future.
This is not evidence of a successful advertising regulation system, it’s just the opposite.
Convicted rapist Mike Tyson went through a “dark period”
Ultra Tune’s latest ad went a step further, featuring convicted rapist Mike Tyson. The former boxer who bragged about beating his wife and described his enthusiasm for enacting sexual torture on women has “deep regret and remorse” for the “dark period in his life”, presumably, the time when he raped a woman and bashed his wife. Ultra Tune defends their decision to feature a convicted rapist in their ad because Tyson has appeared in other movies.
Sean Buckley gives money to sports
The letter goes on to boast about Sean Buckley’s “generous support” of local combat sports that would “simply cease to exist”, with athletes who “would not be able to realise their dreams within this sporting arena”. It is unclear what any of this has to do with complaints about Ultra Tune’s consistently sexually exploitative advertising.
Sexism sells so Ultra Tune will continue to profit from sexploitation
Ms Plumpton then argues the sexist advertising is effective, resulting in a steady growth in sales. Evidently ethics and corporate social responsibility have little weight so long as Ultra Tune can profit from the exploitation of women.
The letter concludes as follows:
“We take all of our complaints very seriously and whilst we disagree with your thoughts on our advertisement, we would like to extend to you a $200 voucher that you (or your family) can use in the next 12 months at any of our Ultra Tune centres throughout Australia.”
Ultra Tune believes that they can convince consumers to overlook their sexist advertising with a mere $200.
Have you made a complaint to Ultra Tune? Contact their Head Office today and ask for your $200 voucher: email@example.com
Watch Mike Tyson’s awkward interview on Sunrise