Sexist advertising

Despite regulatory efforts and public uproar, still around (and popular with many brands).

Sexist advertising: a despicable practice, but apparently indispensable to marketers.

‘Sexist advertising’ is increasingly facing the attention of lawmakers and Regulatory Authorities.  However, relying on ‘racy ads’ is apparently still perceived as an effective marketing tool by advertisers and agencies. The negative impact of gender stereotyping and discriminatory messages on a brand’s image seems to be largely underestimated.

A selection of examples shows how critical it can result when those aspects come into play.

In recent years I have dealt several times with campaigns focusing on gender discrimination and ‘sexist’ advertising. Despite this - questionable – marketing practice periodically hitting the headlines of the national and international Press with harsh comments, it appears that commercial communication is still not capable of doing without presentations and claims ‘pushed to the edge’ (often shifting into the area of ‘soft porn’) or resulting demeaning and insulting to the female image.
Even clear legal restrictions seem ineffective to prevent the phenomenon: we all have become aware of the measures adopted in several European countries to limit the use of gender stereotypes and of scantily clad women (with no ‘product relevance’) in advertising.

Differing approaches to sexist ads: the Scandinavian countries.

Most of the Nordic Countries (i.e. Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway) have specific legislation in place meant to grant the equality of the sexes and to avoid gender discrimination.
In Sweden, surprisingly a longtime ‘black sheep’ as the only Nordic country, still lacking of specific legislation against sexist advertising, recent press news report about actions soon to be taken on a local – i.e. municipal - level (in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, the Deputy Major has announced his intention to crack down on gender stereotyped outdoor advertising in public spaces; the city’s traffic division will be able to arrange for take down of offending ads within 24 hours).

Sexist advertising in Central Europe.

In the  UK the municipality of London adopted – in 2016 – a regulation banning body-shaming ads from being displayed in the premises of the city’s transport network TfL. In the following, the Advertising Standards Authority – the British advertising watchdog – announced new standards, meant to offer the advertising industry guidelines, specifically dealing with the use of gender stereotypes in advertising.
Last summer, in France, the Paris City Council reacted to one of the many ‘porn chic’ fashion campaigns by voting a new regulation (effective since November 20, 2017) for outdoor advertising, which specifically prohibits any sexist and discriminatory poster ads appearing across the city.

Similar steps have been taken in Belgium (where the Municipality of Brussels had sexist ads removed from Metro stations) as well as in Germany (where the City Administrators of Berlin and Hamburg – and of several other towns - issued regulations to prevent the display of gender offensive ads in ‘sensitive’ areas, such as near schools, churches or places likely to be attended by minors).  

The Italian approach.

In  Italy, the Code of Marketing Communication Self-Regulation contains a provision calling for marketing communication to “respect human dignity in every form and expression” and to “avoid any form of discrimination, including that of gender”. In addition, the local SRO has stipulated agreements both, with the National Associations of Italian Municipalities as well as with the State Department for Equal Opportunities, to: (i) prevent commercial communication indulging in images (or in the presentation of situations) showing violence against women, (ii) avoid marketing resulting in offensive to women’s image, (iii) favor gender equality and respect for females’ and males’ identity.
The memorandum of understanding provides also for a fast track for proceedings in front of the SRO dealing with sexist, demeaning or offensive advertising.
Other countries also have similar provisions in place. However, up till now this legal framework has proven as poorly effective and not apt to discourage the advertising industry from relying on ‘sexist’ presentations and headlines in promotional messages.


Such ineffectiveness is widely attested by the significant number of cases Regulatory Authorities or industry Self-Regulation Organizations are called to deal with year by year.
In the  UK the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been flooded with complaints about sexist, offensive or gender discriminating ads. Just to mention a few:
During a charity tennis match, poster ads were displayed near the court showing a female player holding a tea cake instead a ball at her hip with her skirt up to the top of her tight. The headlines: “Where do you keep yours?”  “Serve a treat”. Lacking the situation presented of any ‘product relevance’, the ASA considered the ad as ‘socially irresponsible’ and likely to cause serious offence.
Shortly before Christmas a company posted a series of ads on social networks under hashtag “#ElfBehavingBad”. They showed a toy elf ‘behaving bad’, i.e. in a sink together with two dolls shooting a selfie and the caption “A night of ‘Selfies and chill”, holding  a  lightsaber  under  the headline “Buzz  off  Darth,  my  lightsaber  is  bigger  than  yours”, sitting on a donkey’s back and recommending “Don’t tell Rudolph I’ve found a new piece of ass”, playing cards in the company of three unclothed dolls and saying “Joker, joker. I really want to poker”, as well as in other similar situations. The campaigns managed to collect 85 complaints and the ASA considered the presentation of a toy character (Elf on the Shelf), popular with children, behaving in a mischievous manner and making statements with some patent sexual innuendo as irresponsible and likely to cause widespread offence.
Earlier on the ASA had to deal with an ad displayed both, on a company’s social media pages as well as on its website, aimed at promoting shoes through images featuring topless women, wearing only knickers, with their breast covered by shoes under the headline “Fancy a pair?” Several other situations shown in the campaign were also characterized by a clear sexual innuendo. The ASA found the campaign as ‘sexually suggestive’ and ‘demeaning to women’ and held them in breach of the Code.

The French advertising SRO (the Jury de Déontologie Publicitaire, part of the ARPP) recently also issued several decisions with respect to complaints about sexist campaigns:
-  The Jury questioned an outdoor ad showing a model with heavy face makeup wearing just a black top and necklace and holding a chain pending from the ceiling, while a headline states “Right here!” as it felt that the situation presented appeared to promote not a point of sale of merchandise, but a sex shop. It therefore found that the ad reduced the model’ role to sexual object and indulged in gender stereotypes, demeaning to the females’ image. The advertiser received a cease and desist order.
- The Jury took also issue with an ad for a gym, showing two smiling girls while training on cycling machines with a ginning old man seated between them in fishing clothing and holding a pole in his hand, with the following headline: “Fishing won’t never better than that”.  It considered that presenting young women in a gym as an easy catch for elderly men resulted in an unacceptable reduction of them into the function of animal preys. Therefore, the ad conveyed a demeaning and degrading stereotype of the female image.
- Another gym poster ad, displayed at bus stops, came also to the attention of the Jury. It showed a young girl while exercising – in leggings and a T-shirt (allowing a generous view on her breast cleavage) with the following headline “Euro 95 for the first month – without obligation”. The Jury conceded that the posture of the exercising model shown in the ad was ‘in line’ with the intent to promote a gym. However, it felt that the ‘central’ position and the close-up on the model’s breasts assigned her a mere ‘vehicular’ role and relegated her to a gender stereotype, in breach of the provisions of the industry’s ethic code.

Even in Switzerland – home to the fair minded and the serious – sexist advertising is no stranger. A famous Swiss manufacturer used to promote its watches through ads referring to aviation themes (usually having scantily-clad models performing as ‘ground support’ to pilots). As these campaigns draw criticism from the public, the new company management decided to abandon such themes to avoid backlashes to the (luxury) brand’s image.   

Italy has an infamous tradition as to sexist advertising, which often features both wording as well as pictures way beyond any level of acceptability. Therefore, the local public opinion is pushing both, on the SRO as well as on Regulatory Authorities and Lawmakers, for increased efforts to prevent (or at least limit) such questionable marketing practices. A few examples will allow a better understanding of how far campaigns sometimes are willing to go:
- An outdoor poster ad for a restaurant showed a couple embracing in bed with the female’s head replaced by that of a cow under the headline “Meat lovers”.
- At a recent trade fair an exhibitor thought to promote its new cleaning mop through a series of pictures displayed at the exhibition stand, showing an ape, a female hominid and finally a modern woman, all using a cleaning mop. To no one’s surprise, the social media simply went mad about this promotion. The fair’s organizers had to face harsh criticism for allowing such advertising into an exhibition hall.
- In Southern Italy a Deputy Major had several poster ads of an electronics retailer removed, which relied on the use of wording with obvious and crude double entendre (around Valentine’s Day posters appeared with headlines of questionable taste such as: “On Valentine’s Day, have her come immediately”,“... have her bend 90 degrees”, “... put it in her hand”).
- A shipping company, arranging a ferry service between the Italian mainland and some islands, apparently considered appealing and funny posters displayed at boarding areas, showing a long line of women from behind, all in (quite revealing shorts), under the headline “We have Italy’s most famous sterns, you put your asses on them” (where the Italian word for sterns – “poppe” – in local slang also stands for ‘tits’).


So, no doubt that there is increased awareness about the problem and certainly female advocacy groups do not hesitate to raise their voices against gender stereotyping.  However, advertisers and their agencies seem still to be hesitating to abandon the old “sex sells” stereotype as useful a marketing practice.  
But, when they decide to rely on ‘racy ads’, brands should be extremely careful about how far to the limits they push their marketing. Advertisers should always remind that nowadays, in the age of social media, it takes just one individual feeling insulted by a specific ad and going public on an online platform, for having a claim or a headline thrown back right in their face and for steering a global marketing disaster.