Using sexualised images of women “a cheap shot and didn’t really show a lot of talent”
As someone who has worked on the inside of the industry as a Senior Copywriter and Creative Director over some 25 years, I think I can bring a few insights into why we are seeing an increasing trend towards the sexualisation of women and girls in advertising and media.
There is a tendency just to blame the companies whose brands and products feature the ideas and imagery which cause the offence in the first place. And while it’s true they share a large part of the responsibility for funding and approving the campaigns themselves, the real source of the problem lies deeper within the advertising/PR industry and specifically with the people who come up with the central ideas on which campaigns are built in the first place.
The creative department in an advertising or PR agency is the “foundry” of the industry. It is here where the writers, art directors and creative directors work together to create, mould and shape the core ideas which will eventually become the campaign.
In order to better understand why creative people in advertising produce what they produce, it’s worth looking at what motivates them. One of the big motivations for anyone working in advertising and marketing is industry awards. Awards help to make people well-known, boost their profiles and open up new career opportunities with bigger and better agencies, with of course a substantial boost to both ego and pay packet.
Generally awards are given to campaigns which are considered “edgy”, make news, are controversial or in some way push the boundaries of acceptance in our culture.
“Creatives” see themselves as kindred spirits with other artists and creative people like musicians or film makers or photographers who are constantly pushing the boundaries and limits of the culture. They therefore feel they have a creative “duty” to push those limits through more and more pro-active advertising.
To do anything less is considered within that group to be not “creative”. This why you see films, music videos, songs etc. being released with ever more pro-active lyrics, ideas and imagery.While it is true that the role of artists in a culture is to ‘push the boundaries’, nowhere is it written that means you have to do so by degrading the culture. That you could of course push the limits of the culture by inspiring it with enlightening, uplifting, noble campaigns seems to escape many in the industry. As an example of how powerful this can be, take the video for Goyte’s worldwide smash “Somebody that I used to know”, which features two completely naked people. We know they are naked but at no point is it voyeuristic or do we see either person being treated as a “sex object”. It is nakedness to show the vulnerability of the heart to love gone wrong.
So unfortunately for many creatives the first stop for ideas for a new campaign is something that involves sex. The temptation to go down this path is even stronger when the justification for using “sex to sell” is inherent in the product – it is underwear or clothing or fashion or perfume or something that involves making you more attractive to the opposite (or even same) sex. And if the target market is young, well, so goes the rationale, “young people are just totally into sex so they’ll really relate to this campaign”!
Add into the cauldron the fact that many of the creatives working in the industry are young people who tend to see the world through their own eyes. What they certainly don’t see the world through is the eyes of parents with young children who are very concerned with the type of imagery they see being thrust at their children.
Given the whole purpose of advertising is to draw attention to your clients brands it’s not surprising that so many creatives seek to do so with one of the easiest (and what I consider to be one of the laziest) methods – sex.
Personally, as a Creative Director, if a team came to me with a bunch of ideas for a new campaign, I tended to throw out the ones that used sex as the core message, even if it was relevant. Too often to me it was a cheap shot and didn’t really show a lot of talent.
Like comedians, I always think anyone can make jokes about sex and farts. They’re the cheap end of the market and they’ll always get a laugh, but it takes a real genius and real talent to find humour that completely avoids this type of material.
A few people who work in the advertising industry might be surprised to know the origin of the word advertising comes from the Latin advertere which means literally “to turn the attention towards”. Yep you can grab people’s attention with a lot of things – sex, violence, etc But just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
Advertising creatives can be very persuasive. When they are selling their ideas and campaigns to their clients the whole point it to get them to buy the idea. And when you have young marketing managers, also eager to make an impact and give their career a boost, you get people eager to approve campaigns that are “edgy” and have impact. Particularly when they know it will get them sales and make money.
When clients evaluate campaigns that are a bit risque, they often consider their own viewpoints and that of the target audience when considering how offensive it might be. The problem is, the campaign is often not exposed just to a select coterie but is seen by others beyond and that’s where the problem lies.
One of the justifications that the people creating and funding the campaigns use is that they are just “reflecting the culture back at itself.” It’s a chicken and egg argument. There’s a lot of sexual imagery in our culture already so what’s wrong with a bit more? But what part of the culture do they actually reflect? The part that’s most real to them of course! They don’t see the culture through the eyes of others, including women and girls who are especially impacted by hypersexualised representations.. They see the culture through their own eyes. And a young, single, slightly-oversexed advertising creative isn’t reflective of the society as a whole.
So that is the problem of how campaigns get created. What is wrong with the issue of regulation?
Unfortunately the agency trusted with regulating the standards of the advertising and marketing we see, the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), is generally viewed as a toothless tiger in the industry.
Apart from tending to apply a very liberal viewpoint to the idea of what it calls “prevailing community standards” it specifically does not consider complaints with regard to “taste, morality or decency”. So many complaints about the sexualisation of women and girls in advertising will fall into this category and may not even be considered.
Another issue is the speed with which it acts on complaints. Or the speed with which it fails to act. The board meets every 2 weeks to consider complaints and generally speaking from date of complaint to date of hearing can often be up to 4 weeks.
Four weeks is plenty of time for an agency or client to get a controversial campaign up and running and let it finish so that by the time the ASB rules, the campaign may have already achieved its objectives.
Generally the only action the Board takes is to order the campaign to cease, so if it has already ceased there is no penalty. And there is, generally speaking, no “restrospective” action. Clients are usually not fined or penalised for running the campaign even if it is found to be offensive.
Let’s not forget that, for many in the industry, having a campaign banned is seen as something as a “badge of honour”. As I mentioned earlier, in the advertising industry notoriety and success often go hand in hand.
The problem of course is that such campaigns still feed controversy. As Oscar Wilde so brilliantly put it the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In this world of instant celebrity, this becomes an even worse factor in stimulating such campaigns and motivating people to generate more campaigns.
It is also not unusual for an agency when creating a campaign for a client, particularly one that has a limited budget, to deliberately create a provocative campaign that will generate what they see as “media outrage”, giving the campaign a lot more exposure, so doubling or tripling the value of their campaign funds.
There are far more campaigns generated with this intention than may currently be imagined.
Voting on complaints is done on numbers game and the majority rules. So even if almost half of the Board agrees with a complaint, it may not be ruled against.
Also the Board works part-time so it’s not meeting regularly enough to be an enforcement arm. It is merely a committee to complain to. And it works under some very prescriptive guidelines that can often tie it hands.
So what is the solution for all those who are quite rightly upset by some of the blatant sexualisation of girls and women that happen in advertising?
I think groups like Collective Shout can play a vital role. First, it in itself can very quickly raise awareness of campaigns that are contributing to the problem and motivate people to act, to write to the ASB. The ASB does act more quickly and sometimes with more fervour if it gets a lot of complaints.
That’s because it does have to consider “prevailing community standards”. If no one is complaining to them, they take that to mean that the prevailing standard is “no one cares about this issue.” Conversely, lots of people complaining about a campaign sends a message that the prevailing standard is “people care about this issue passionately”.
Secondly Collective Shout can be used as an activist forum, with people encouraging others to boycott stores and brands that use imagery or ideas. Nothing speaks louder to a client than lost sales. If it can be shown that companies which produce this sort of advertising will get boycotted and lose sales, clients will feel more wary when agencies try and sell them ideas which push the boundaries too far.
Collective Shout should also put pressure on the Government to increase the resourcing of the ASB so that it can meet more often. A weekly meeting would be more ideal in enabling the board to act on campaigns more quickly
Your voice can be used to bring about positive change in the community.
Mark Farrelly is a freelance Advertising Writer