MTR on Gruen Sessions
Last night the on-line version of the ABC’s Gruen Transfer, known as The Gruen Sessions was broadcast on the program’s site. The topic was the depiction of women in advertising. I was a guest on the panel with media analyst Jane Caro, advertising executives Russell Howcroft and Todd Sampson and host Wil Anderson.
• That women continue to be portrayed in objectified, sexualised ways in advertising – and that it’s getting worse
• That women are primarily depicted in normative ways as thin, white, anglo-saxon and idle
• That images which would be considered sexual harassment if posted in a workplace are considered perfectly acceptable if posted on giant billboards in the public domain
• That the regular dismissal of complaints suggests that sexist advertising is acceptable
• That children and young people continue to receive the message that being thin, hot and sexy is the way to happiness and success
• That the Advertising Standards Board is limited in effectiveness, and therefore acts in the interests of the industry, because of a weak code of ethics, voluntary advertiser participation, no pre-vetting of material, no power to withdraw ads and no penalties for offending advertisers
• That there needed to be greater industry accountability and responsibility
• That women’s equality should be placed higher than commercial interests
It is a reality not widely enough acknowledged that the more complaints about sexist advertising are dismissed, the more normalised and entrenched such advertising becomes.
Whether inadvertently or not, the ASB’s routine dismissal of complaints does mould community standards. The increasing number of sexist advertisements shown, compounded with the small number ever withdrawn, works to give the impression that sexist advertising is tolerable.
Another problem is that a lot of people just do not know where to complain to. As Dr Rosewarne told the Senate committee inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media environment. (See Melbourne hearing transcripts )
If the complaints process is not made more obvious, the consequence is that community silence is read as tolerance and as being in line with ‘community standards’, thus facilitating sexist advertisements, and that remains the status quo.
Of course, the industry likes things exactly the way they are. As the Australia Institute says:
… advertisers also have an interest in avoiding government scrutiny that may lead to stronger regulation of advertising in the interests of the general public…Self-regulation is a strategy that enables the industry to avoid such scrutiny.
There is also an attitude of contempt towards those making complaints, as John Brown a former member of the Advertising Standards Board, demonstrates. As told to the Senate inquiry, Brown was quoted, in one of the Advertising Standard’s Boards own publications, as saying:
I’m still amused after all these years at the sometimes petty approach of some citizens to the very mild attacks on their sensibility in certain ads. But keep your letters coming. This is democracy in action and also very amusing.
Lynx “Spray more, get more”: the Unilever view of women
I was very pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the Lynx ads, which feature demeaning representations of women. Lynx is owned by Unilever, which also owns Dove. You would know about Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign which purports to promote respect and recognition of women’s real value. Dove also funds programs in schools to help educate regarding body image issues. How you do that while also presenting women as out-of-control sex maniacs who attack any man who has sprayed himself with Lynx, I don’t know. Dove also has skin whitening creams for dark skinned women suggesting real beauty only comes in white skin. As well, Unilever markets slimfast products for rapid weight loss, suggesting real beauty only comes in size skinny. Had enough of real women already have we?
Is the ASB out of touch? Women say yes.
Last week the Advertising Standards Board released a research report titled ‘Community Perfections of sex, sexuality and nudity in advertising’
The ASB likes to claim it is attuned with community standards and seems to base this on the fact that it upheld complaints about the two most offensive ads. The data in table 4 shows that in a large proportion of the ads about which complaints were dismissed (6 of 11) they were found objectionable by one in three, or more, respondents.
Examining the stats by gender, in the next table, the picture gets even worse. For those ads, on average nearly half of females find them unacceptable (46% – for some ads it is over 50%).
So, according to the ASB, it is in line with community perceptions to offend almost half of women.
As Elizabeth Handsley, Professor of Law at Flinders University and Vice President of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, wrote in an email to me yesterday:
There is a pretty strong argument that being out of step with the standards of nearly half of women is not good enough.
The question always has to be: what is the community benefit that justifies offending this many people?
The self-regulatory system has been inadequate to the task of dealing with increasingly pornified imagery in the public spaces. The continual dismissal of most complaints and the growing display of sexualised imagery serves to normalise and mainstream the objectification of women. Perhaps the whole thing should be handed over to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner rather than handled in-house by an industry which shows us everyday what it really thinks of women.