Sexist ads: a never-ending story

Campaigns struggle to restrain from using disturbing innuendos.

Sexist Ads: the approach to the problem.

Over the years I have repeatedly addressed the issue of ad campaigns insisting on relying on sexism and gender stereotypes. Despite a periodically rising tide of public uproar about the issue and both politicians as well as advocacy groups addressing the problem, the marketers feel that they cannot do without offending the sensitiveness of their targeted audience.

Sexist Ads: the reality.

While lawmakers vigorously call for action and new regulations (usually at the dawn of an election term), reality tells another story. Year after year watchdogs deal with (and crack down on) an increasing number of sexist campaigns, slip through the meshes of the control system.

Enforcement in Italy.

In September the Review Board of the Italian Advertising Self-Regulation system (IAP) had to issue cease and desist injunctions to halt campaigns promoting:

  • security services under the headlines “Rely on expert hands with brand XXX, Call me” “Complete service. Call me”, accompanied by a picture of a model in an elegant black dress, with red lip dye and a seductive look. Holding a pair of handcuffs.
  • a certain wine brand under the headline “Taste me”with a woman in a white dress holding a chalice of red wine in front of her pubis.

Previously, in July, several citizens in a small town in the North of Italy took issue with a poster ad showing a model in high heels, wearing stockings and a top, with big hair and featuring the headline “Women have just one thing on their mind” in very big type and then (in small type) “Their hairstylist’s lacquer”.

Enforcement abroad.

Even though conceding that Italy has frequently enjoyed very bad press about the general attitude against women, this is – unfortunately – not just a local problem. Any number of similar examples may also be found in other countries.

In the US a jeweler manufacturer managed to offend its potential female customers by promoting its high-end products under the headline “Sometimes it is OK to throw rocks at girls”. As a quick rush to posting an apology on Facebook and an immediate withdrawal of the posters did not result truly effective, the owners of the company added a donation of ten per cent of their revenues on a certain Sunday in favor of a local association assisting victims of domestic violence.

InIrelanda night club came up with the brilliant idea of drawing attention to its premises through outdoor posters, showing a female golfer in a white minidress from behind with the following headline :”XYZ (Club name) Your nineteenth’s hole for the entire summer”. Harsh reactions from passers-by have been reported.

In Sweden an Internet service provider thought to rely on the well-known stereotype that a guy – even when on a stroll with his girlfriend – is unable to restrain from looking at a ‘hottie’ passing by. The Internet service provider announced open job positions at the company through posts on social media. The posts presented a couple, holding hands while on a street stroll. A flashy woman in a red dress is walking by, the guy turns his head and watches her with a clearly interested look, his girlfriend notices with a clear expression of disappointment on her face. On the guy’s shirt you see the word “You”, his girlfriend’s shirt features “Your current workplace”, while on the red dress of the girl walking by you see the brand of the job offering company. The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman found (and banned) the ad ‘sexually discriminatory’ due to women being portrayed as interchangeable items and as to much hype was put onto the female aesthetic appearance.

In the context of the last Football World Championship a German bakery thought to take advantage of the popular event through a campaign presenting a woman wearing an apron and holding a football shaped cake in her hands. The headline: “Bake your man (your granny, your little sis) happy, even if he/she has a second love”. To no one’s surprise a huge protest erupted on social media. The advertiser’s attempt to defend the ‘love cake’ campaign: No offense intended, we thought the ad was ironic and funny and – finally – it was conceived and performed by the Bakery’s Swiss branch. Interestingly, the company turns out to be a repeat offender as already back in the 50ies it had run a campaign under the (quite questionable) headline “A woman has to vital questions: What am I to wear, what am I to cook?”

To conclude.

Getting rid of gender stereotypes and of the “sex sells” dictum, appears to result almost impossible to marketers throughout the World.