New research shows ad industry is trailing behind community expectations
Recently we celebrated a big win with Bauer Media Group's decision to can its People and Picture porn magazines. In a media statement Movement Director Melinda Tankard Reist commended Bauer Media for the move, stating that society has moved on from harmful, sexist portrayals of women.
New research has captured identical sentiment about harmful, sexist advertising: as a society we've moved on. The research paper titled 'Community responses to gender portrayals in advertising' is the collaborative work of RMIT and Women's Health Victoria. It shows that as a society we are cognisant of the harms of sexually objectifying portrayals of women in advertising and that we want better.
Study participants felt that ads portray men and women in ways that are 'out of step with contemporary society': Women are shown as homemakers, mothers or sex objects; men are portrayed in 'more action-oriented roles and associated with leadership and power'.
The following key findings were reported:
Participants felt that the impacts of these portrayals were particularly disempowering for women and contributed to the devaluing of women in society. Many suggested that advertisements that sexualise women or focus on women’s appearance had a negative impact on intimate relationships, body image, self-esteem and mental health. Several expressed concern that these portrayals could contribute to violence against women.
Apart from perceptions about harmful stereotypes in advertising, the research also examined community perceptions of the self-regulated advertising system, finding that 'people want more responsible advertising'. The study authors have urged the advertising industry to learn from others and get with the times:
The industry has acknowledged a need to review its code of ethics. That’s a start. But something else to learn from Britain to address sexist advertising is the value of a co-regulatory system that doesn’t leave the industry to set its own rules...It’s time for the industry to show it’s not living in the past.
Britain recently introduced broader restrictions on harmful sexist stereotypes in advertising. The ban is underpinned by a co-regulated system that enables enforcement.
We've been pointing out the flaws of the self-regulated ad industry for years. Lack of meaningful penalties for advertisers that breach the code, no powers within the system to enforce removal of ads that breach the code and reliance on community members to report suspected non-compliance are just a few. In our own submission to the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics review, we too urged the ad industry to take stock and end their complicity in the sexploitation of women and girls:
We believe the advertising industry in Australia must..take stock of its contribution to a culture that defines the value of women and girls by their sex appeal and that fosters tolerance for the abuse of women and girls. We believe that in the process of reviewing its Code of Ethics, the AANA must consider and implement measures that will uphold human rights as well as the community standard, procure a genuine sense of obligation from all advertisers in all advertising activity at all times and end advertisers’ complicity in the harm of women and girls.
Our comments and recommendations are aligned with research that shows society has changed. We see sexualised and sexually objectifying portrayals of women in advertising for what they are: factors contributing to the real-life harms of women and girls. It's time the ad industry did too.
Read the full research paper here.
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In yet another display of inconsistent decision-making, the Ad Standards Community Panel has dismissed community complaints against a porn-inspired Honey Birdette ad. ‘Belinda’ features a series of close-up, head-to-chest shots of a woman wearing sheer, blue, mesh fabric. Despite the ad featuring graphic, sexualised imagery, the Community Panel made several unsubstantiated claims to ultimately conclude that the ad treated “sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience” – one that includes kids.
With references to the length of time the images are shown for, the effects “lighting” and “framing” have on the ad, statements about featured body parts being relevant to the product being advertised, and an announcement that “most members of the community would not find the level of nudity in the advertisement confronting or inappropriate in the context of advertising a mesh bodysuit”, the Community Panel gave the green light to this public display of porn-themed imagery to an all-age, non-consenting audience.
Portions of the report state:
The Panel considered whether the advertisement was in breach of Section 2.4 of the Code. Section 2.4 of the Code states: “Advertising or Marketing Communications shall treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience”. The Panel considered whether the advertisement contained sex, sexuality or nudity.
The Panel noted the Practice Note for the Code states:
“Images which are not permitted are those which are highly sexually suggestive and inappropriate for the relevant audience. Explicit sexual depictions in marcomms, particularly where the depiction is not relevant to the product or service being advertised, are generally objectionable to the community and will offend Prevailing Community Standards.”
The Panel noted the complainant’s concerns that the advertisement featured highly sexually suggestive images which resemble porn and which were inappropriate to be seen by children. The Panel considered whether the images depicted sex.
The Panel noted the dictionary definition of sex most relevant to this section of the Code of Ethics is ‘sexual intercourse; sexually stimulating or suggestive behaviour.’ (Macquarie Dictionary 2006).
The Panel considered that the depiction of a woman in revealing lingerie is not of itself a depiction of sexual intercourse, sexual stimulation or suggestive behaviour and that the advertisement as a whole did not contain sex.
The Panel considered whether the advertisement treated the issue of sexuality with sensitivity to the relevant audience.
The Panel noted the definition of sexuality includes ‘sexual character, the physical fact of being either male or female; The state or fact of being heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual; sexual preference or orientation; one’s capacity to experience and express sexual desire; the recognition or emphasising of sexual matters’. The Panel noted that the use of male or female actors in an advertisement is not of itself a depiction of sexuality.
The Panel considered that the style of lingerie being promoted was sexualised and that this did add an element of sexuality to the advertisement. The Panel considered that the depiction of the woman wearing this style of lingerie was relevant to the product being promoted. The Panel considered that although it is reasonable for an advertiser to depict the product being promoted, the depiction should be treated with sensitivity to the relevant audience. The Panel determined that the advertisement did contain sexuality.
The Panel considered the meaning of ‘sensitive’ and noted that the definition of sensitive in this context can be explained as indicating that ‘if you are sensitive to other people's needs, problems, or feelings, you show understanding and awareness of them.’ (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/sensitive)
The Panel considered that the requirement to consider whether sexual suggestion is ‘sensitive to the relevant audience’ is a concept requiring them to consider who the relevant audience is and to have an understanding of how they might react to or feel about the advertisement – the concept of how subtle sexual suggestion is or might be is relevant to the Panel considering how children, and other sections of the community, might consider the advertisement.
The Panel noted that this image appears in store windows and considered that the relevant audience includes retail and service workers, people shopping in the Honey Birdette store and people who are not shopping at Honey Birdette but who are walking past the store, and that this last group would be broad and would include children.
The Panel considered that the flashing nature of the images may give the impression of a peep-show and added to the sexualised feel of the advertisement, however there was no focus on nudity or the woman’s body and the overall impression of the advertisement was not strongly sexualised. The Panel considered that the woman in the advertisement was not posed in a sexualised manner and that the wording on the advertisement was not sexual. The Panel considered that while the flashing images may attract the attention of children and people walking past the store, the images themselves were not overtly sexual. The Panel considered that the advertisement did treat the issue of sexuality with sensitivity to the relevant audience.
The Panel noted the complainants’ concern that the sheer material meant that there is a hyper focus on the woman’s bare breasts that this is a level of nudity which is inappropriate for a public space where children could view the advertisement. The Panel considered whether the advertisement contained nudity and noted that the dictionary definition of nudity includes ‘something nude or naked’, and that nude and naked are defined to be ‘unclothed and includes something ‘without clothing or covering’. The Panel considered that the Code is intended for the Panel to consider the concept of nudity, and that partial nudity is factor when considering whether an advertisement firstly contains nudity and secondly treats that nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience. The Panel noted that the bodysuit worn by the model in the advertisement was sheer and that her nipples are visible through the fabric in the images. The Panel noted that the lingerie worn in the advertisement is available for purchase at Honey Birdette, however considered that products must still be advertised in a manner that is suitable for advertising on the front window of a store that is located in a shopping centre.
The Panel considered the Practice Note for the Code which provides:
“Full frontal nudity and explicit pornographic language is not permitted. Images of genitalia are not acceptable. Images of nipples may be acceptable in advertisements for plastic surgery or art exhibits for example.”
The Panel considered that in the first, second, third, fourth and fifth images the woman’s breasts and nipples can be seen through the sheer fabric of her lingerie, however considered that the woman’s nipples appeared to have been pixelated.
The Panel considered that the depiction of women’s nipples does not in itself amount to an unacceptable level of nudity. The Panel noted that it had previously determined that advertisements which featured female nipples in a way which is discreet and not the focus of the advertisement (0543/18, 0134/19, 0157/19, 0174/19), when advertising to a restricted audience (0097/17, 0086/15, 0145/17) or when advertising a non-sexualised product (0290/14, 0103/12, 0276/10) and therefore did treat the issue of nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience.
The Panel considered that a large sector of the community are uncomfortable with images of mostly naked female breasts however the Panel considered that the brief display of the woman’s nipples were not the focus of the advertisement and were partially obscured by pixilation and were not the focus of the advertisement. The Panel considered that most members of the community would not find the level of nudity in the advertisement confronting or inappropriate in the context of advertising a mesh bodysuit.
The Panel determined the advertisement did treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience and did not breach Section 2.4 of the Code.
Finding that the advertisement did not breach any other section of the Code, the Panel dismissed the complaint.
What do you think? Does this recent Community Panel decision reflect your community’s standards? Tell us in the comments below.
Read the full Case Report here.
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General Pants has a long history of using sexist and sexually objectifying advertising to sell its merchandise. Their latest ad campaign, in store windows across the country, shows that nothing much has changed.
This is not the first time General Pants has sexually objectified women, or used topless women to promote their products. The youth retailer first came to our attention after featuring pole dancers in their shop window display in Melbourne's Bourke Street store.
In 2011, General Pants management instructed underage staff to wear “I love sex” badges that made them feel embarrassed and uncomfortable.
General Pants then displayed large images of topless women being stripped from behind by an unseen man. Some of these images were framed as large keyholes to suggest the women were being spied on.
A short time later, a supporter alerted us to the store’s change room wallpaper, featuring an array of images advertising pornography and prostitution.
In 2014, General Pants window displays featured sexualised images of young, bikini clad women in the bath alongside the slogan ‘Wet Dreams’.
In 2016, their advertising featured topless and semi-naked women alongside fully clothed men.
The research is clear- exposure to these sort of everyday sexualised images of women has a range of negative impacts, including greater body dissatisfaction and self-objectification in women, greater support of sexist beliefs and a greater tolerance of violence against women, as well as leading both men and women to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality and humanity.
The ongoing sexualising and objectifying treatment of women by companies like General Pants contributes to real-world harms for women and girls- why is this advertising still permitted?
Ad industry self-regulation in Australia is a failure. In the lead up to the election, we are calling on supporters to contact their local candidates and ask them to support a new regulatory regime to ensure public spaces are free from sexualised and sexually objectifying images that harm women and children.
Three years ago we reported on the extreme amount of hypersexualised imagery on display at Chadstone Shopping Centre. A popular hangout for teens after school, it was hard to walk from one end of the centre to the other without being exposed to the harmful ads.
A recent visit shows that not much has improved.
We know from two decades of research that "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."
Grant Kelley, the CEO and Managing Director of Vicinity Centres, who owns Chadstone Shopping centre, was appointed a Male Champion of Change in 2018. One of their goals is "ending everyday sexism". They even have a whole 18 page document dedicated to it. So what exactly is Mr Kelley doing to ensure that this everyday sexism is stamped out of his shopping centre?
Contact Vicinity Centres CEO and Managing Director Grant Kelley via his LinkedIn here
Tweet Vicinity Centres here
Send them a message via Facebook here
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