Why Australia Should Follow France's Lead on 'Degrading' Sexist Advertising

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.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Collective Shout. She blogs at www.melindatankardreist.com.

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