In advertising, ethics have always been a focal point – whether concerning violence, racial and ethnic stereotypes or even just plain old vulgarity – but today there is no topic that stirs more conversation than sexism. As the issue of gender equality continues to move to the forefront of the political agenda, the argument around marketers objectifying women to increase sales rages on, and we are no closer to resolving the issue today than we were in 1925, when Sigmund Freud’s views on female passivity and their inability to add anything of their own to society was the accepted thinking.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not people like Freud contributed to the misogynistic outlook of which agencies have long been accused, even in these comparatively enlightened times advertisers are still finding ways to sexualise women to boost sales, despite the penalties involved in doing so. Why? Because any publicity is good publicity.
In for a penny, in for a pound
In 2000, the shoe company Windsor Smith unveiled a series of extremely sexist, attention-grabbing billboards explicitly suggestive of oral sex. The campaign was met with outrage from the general public and the company came under pressure from the Advertising Standards Board (ASB), and even had their posters defaced by a Brisbane-based feminist group.
So what steps were taken to make amends? None. Windsor Smith upheld their right to non-compliance, enjoyed an estimated $4 million worth of free media coverage over the controversy, and the shoe featured in the ad became one of their best sellers.
It seems that exploiting the stereotype of the single-mindedness of males never ceases to pay-off.
Even a do-gooders of our modern world, the not-for-profit animal rights group PETA, has sacrificed female dignity for the sole purpose of reaching the male audience, repeatedly spearheading their campaigns with subjective images of partially or fully nude women.
The adverse effect
There is no denying that flirting with controversy is an easy and effective way of getting free publicity, but as the public becomes increasingly vigilant in the war against sexual typecasting, advertisers can occasionally find themselves in hot water without meaning to be offensive. A 2005 Carlton United Brewery’s TV commercial attracted complaints for showing men rushing through their duties as pallbearers to get away and have a beer. The grounds? Poor taste, “discrimination and vilification”. The ASB dismissed the complaints, but company voluntarily withdrew the ad.
Less skin, more brains
This year, the global tyre giant Pirelli decided to revisit the blueprint for its annual calendars, switching the focus from scantily clad, busty models to a celebration of accomplished women. The move earned the brand praise from women all over the world and copious media coverage –the latter, however, was mainly focused on the only two women in calendar who were nude or topless.
But while Pirelli’s new approach may have won over the hearts of women, their target market is men – and a great number of their audience has taken to social media to express their disappointment with the sudden change.
The final blow
Like a cold war, battles in the world of advertising are well known but rarely seen, making it hard to keep tabs on who’s winning and even harder to know which side people are on.
Even so, in a world where advertising has never been more scrutinized, we need to ask ourselves why we are seeing such little progress in the war on sexism.
Put simply, because sex sells.