As concern for gender equality continues around the world, so do the concerns in how women and children are portrayed and perceived in an ever increasing international media. Since advertising carries those messages, images of women continue to come under scrutiny. In May of 2011, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly received a report from its Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Children which discussed the nature of this problem and called for action regarding sexist advertising. These portrayals of women are believed by opponents to sexist advertising to present unrealistic beauty standards and often objectify women. These opponents argue stereotypic images are contributing to harmful effects such as eating disorders and violence against women. One primary focus in this dialogue is whether responses should be made which interfere with business practices. What is the nature of the marketplace? Should business be monitored and censured? How or could appropriate criteria for judgement be established?
Advertising is the promotion of good and services through public messages. Sexism can be defined as discrimination based on gender or attitudes which promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender. Sexist advertising, then, is the promotion of goods or services which stereotype women and men based on gender. Banning refers to the public restriction of a particular action to achieve a desired goal.
Sexist advertising harms women through objectification and diminishing of self-image. The United Nations Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) links stereotypes about women to prejudice based on gender.1 Through visual and verbal messages women are portrayed as subservient to men. Women are seen increasingly as sex objects and these ads legitimize violence against women.2 Sexist advertising also harms women's self-image by portraying an ideal stylized body.3 The implied message is that consumers should seek to acquire these images even if they are contrary to the reality of body types and features. Eating disorders and obsessive beauty products consumption results in order to attain ideal beauty images presented in the media.4 Sexist ads also harm men through stereotyped images of masculinity.5
1 Object.Org. "Women not Sex Objects." 2011/ August 24
2 Newswise.com. "Study Find Rise in Sexualized Images of Women." 2011/08/10
3 Kilbourne, Jean. "Beauty... and the Beast of Advertising"
Sexist advertising reflects current social attitudes. Attitudes and perceptions are based on culturally specific values and beliefs. It is difficult to determine a universal definition of harm and sexist advertising to determine if harm occurs.
Some studies have been questioned regarding their rigor in examining the direct link from advertising to violence against women.1Violence to women is not debatable but the cause of that violence is.
In addition, studies related to body image and beauty are often restricted to those sharing certain genetic characteristics yet biological differences exist between women. What is an idealized body image exactly?
Some current advertising has broadened images of women to include a variety of body types, cultures, and ages to define beauty outside traditional stereotypes. Advertising also portrays women in roles of power and success and not always as sex objects as claimed.
1 Young,Toby. "The Home Office report on child sexualisation is a 100-page Cosmopolitan article." Telegraph.com. 2010/February 26
Women's rights to be free from stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and objectification should be a matter of deep concern as they infringe on human rights related to gender. Advertising messages influence younger generations as well as send stereotypical images of men. As a result the objectification and violence against women will continue. Gender inequality and sexual harassment in the work place is not likely to diminish.1 This means that women will continue to suffer from discrimination based upon their gender.
1 Newswise.com, "Study Find Rise in Sexualized Images of Women." 2010
Bans on sexist advertising will not necessarily solve the harms presented and could instead cause harm to businesses through restricting their ability to compete for audiences and consumers. Gender differences and beliefs about sex existed before advertising. There is no certainty changing the content of ads would bring about change within individual societies and cultures which have their own independent attitudes. Cultures have a right to their own ideals and own values.
Adverts occupy more public space than ever before in history. Due to technology, public space is global and ads can been seen around the world, in 2009 the UK became the first major economy where advertisers spend more on internet advertising than on television advertising1. Through such dominance, ads contribute to attitudes and values. Due to their power to influence attitudes within a society, serious attention should be paid to the content of advertising.
1 Sweney, Mark, 'Internet overtakes television to become biggest advertising sector in the UK', The Guardian, 30 September 2009
All types of messages are prevalent and advertisements do not possess any more influence than news or entertainment programming. Advertising is simply integral to pubic space messages and represents the increase of all messages through the advancement of technologies. Advertising is also necessary to support all of types of other mediated messages like news, politics, and entertainment.
Additionally, due to the overload of messages of all kinds, consumers learn to screen out and limit their reception of information. Through technology, a viewer can eliminate advertisements from program content.
Norway and Denmark have already developed policies to restrict sexist advertising1. In 2008, the UN Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women calls upon states to taken action and in particular the United Kingdom government to address this issue.2 In May of 2011 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe 's Committee on Equal Opportunity for Women made a case for sexist advertising as a barrier to gender equality. In that report standards were presented and methods to cope with sexist advertising were suggested.3In Australia a government advisory board has developed a list of principles to guide both advertising and the fashion industry.4
1 Holmes, Stefanie. "Scandinavian split on sexist ads." BBC news. 2008/April 25 accessed 2011/08/25
2 Object.com. "Women are not Sex Objects."
3 Parliamentary Assembly of 26 May 2011, The Council of Europe.
4 Kennedy, Jean. "Fashion Industry asked to adopt body image code." ABCNews. 2010/June 27
Policies which ban will interfere with business practices, restrict free expression, and be are difficult to standardize.
If ads do not sell, they will be rejected and when ads are effective they are likely to continue in pursuit of gaining consumers. Business has the right to set business practices which work for them. Restricting the content of advertising restricts free expression. In fact, Sweden rejected a ban on sexist advertising because it was believed to restrict free expression.1
1 Holmes, Stefanie. "Scandinavian split on sexist ads" BBCNews
Business has a compelling self interest to make a profit and advertising is integral to that endeavour. The profit from business allows for economic growth without which individual states and the world's economy could not survive. Competition drives the marketplace of products and ideas. And, advertising is the primary method through which those products, services and ideas are made known to the public. When banning is placed upon advertising, the ability to compete and survive in the economic marketplace is threatened. Therefore, the compelling need to make a profit is legitimizes the need for advertising.
Although business has a compelling self interest to make a profit and advertising is integral to that endeavour, business does not necessarily sacrifice its profit when curbing sexist advertising. If messages are harmonizing with social attitudes, then advertising which appeals to the greater good of gender equality does not necessarily harm but could enhance business credibility. The Benneton ads have often embraced a social consciousness to promote the public good while making a profit. The affirmative has acknowledged that for advertising to be effective they have to connect to values held within the community. As more awareness develops about the negative influence of sexist advertising, business is likely to benefit from the banning of sexist ads.
Effective advertising appeals to the social, cultural, and personal values of consumers. Through the connection of values to products, services and ideas, advertising is able to accomplish its goal of adoption. Failure to make meaningful appeals to audience members seriously diminishes the outcomes of marketing. Since differing beliefs about beauty, body types, sexuality, and gender roles exist across societies and cultures, universal definitions of sexist advertising are too difficult to determine. As an example, biological differences exist between women and what may be considered excessively thin in one society may not be so in another. Any type of censoring calls into questions such as who will censor and how will such censorship be applied. The development of standards could favour cultural imperialism. Therefore, sexist advertising is too difficult to codify.
Although there is a claim that sexist advertising is to difficult to codify, such codes have and are being developed to guide the advertising industry. These standards speak to advertising which demeans the status of women, objectifies them, and plays upon stereotypes about women which harm women and society in general. Earlier the Council of Europe was mentioned, Denmark, Norway and Australia as specific examples of codes or standards for evaluating sexist advertising which have been developed.
Banning requires a legal framework and enforcement mechanism. External organizations interfere with the ability of business to conduct business. Should the social cultural environment change, businesses are likely to respond to the attitudes of their consumers. A recent change in the California Milk Board's website occurred due to public pressure.1 Social corporate responsibility is another possibility which business could embrace if changing social attitudes develop.2Banning is a repressive method which interferes with competition. Self determined methods should be allowed to competitors in the economic marketplace. Therefore, any changes in advertising should come from the business community rather than through banning.
1 Kumar, Sheila. "Milk Board Alters Sexist PMS-Themed Ad Campaign." The Huffington Post. 2011/July 22.
2 Skibola, Nicole. "Gender and Ethics in Advertising: The New CSR." Forbes.com. 2011/August 4
Even though some businesses have responded to public opinion, there are sufficient international commitments which address gender inequality in all societies. The Universal Declaration of Human rights and subsequent conventions have acknowledged the overwhelming need to set policies and practices into motion which deal with the rights of women and children. Waiting upon the private sector to respond to needed changes in social attitudes which demean certain groups of citizens, is to slow, too inefficient, and until actions are taken does not solve the inherent problems we have discussed. Eating disorders, diminished self images, and the promotion of women as sexual objects has immediate harms for women and influences the socialization of children. Men as well suffer from stereotypes about attractiveness, body images, and sexuality. Therefore problems created from sexist advertising need to be addressed now rather than around the hope that business fuelled by its concern for profit will take appropriate action to create and design ads that avoid sexist advertising. Advertising campaigns need to be planned with standards in mind not simply wait for public response when ads have be found offensive. The California Mild board example you provide illustrates this after-the-fact approach.
Consumers have a choice to expose themselves to advertising through their own personal behaviour. Advertisements can be ignored by the consumer and deleted at will. Interpretation of the ad depends on the attitudes of the receiver. The purchase and consumption of beauty products is the personal choice of a buyer. How ads attract and influence is determined by individual beliefs and values of the audience member. Some feminists believe that institutional power structures set up a "victim" mentality in women and fail to empower them by placing dependence upon power structures to make choices for women.1 If consumers wish to embrace the ideals or values represented in ads, this should be their choice. Therefore the right to self determine one's consumer behaviour should be left to the individual.
1 Thomas, Christine. "The New Sexism." Socialism Today, Issue #77. 2003/September
It is true that individuals do have the right to consume media and have some power over how they perceive and respond to media. However, since the nature of advertising is always planned for public consumption, then ads contribute to existing attitudes inside a person. When slaves in the U.S. were marketed and sold according to the content of advertising, a social system was being perpetrated. When the injustices of slavery were acknowledged both the business and the marketing of slaves ceased to exist. When the greater social good of justice is held over individual choice, social good should prevail. Advertising which demeans the value of certain groups of citizens is not appropriate for the public marketplace. Although Individual choice and freedom of choice are to be valued, public messages by the nature of their public audience, must serve the greater society. Pornography in the public airways is often regulated and banned because it is seen as potentially harmful to women and children of a society. Due to the public nature of advertising then, the greater society has a more important right than that of individuals.