Sex(ism) sells! Adverts tend to focus on simple messages, which is why they often rely on lazy stereotypes to sell products. Women find themselves reduced to silent decoration, while men in “ad land” are apparently unable to operate a washing machine.
In Berlin, proposals have been put forward to ban sexist advertising on billboards across the city (and a ban has already been in place in at least one neighbourhood since 2014). Is this a progressive step toward gender equality? Or neo-puritanism disguised as feminism? Where do the boundaries lie between bad taste and outright sexism?
Advertising is ubiquitous, whether we encounter it in out and about, while watching TV, or surfing online. Since it’s so all-pervasive, we tend to switch off and do our best to ignore it, which is why naked bodies are so often deployed to try and yank our attention back again. But how much provocation is allowed?
The British Advertising Standards Authority has announced it intends to ban sexist advertising. The ASA also published a review on the consequences of gender stereotyping in advertising, concluding that children in particular internalise the roles they see presented. In response, they intend to crack down on ads in which the woman alone is responsible for looking after the home, while the man is depicted as inept at cleaning or household management.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Ben arguing that: “Emancipation does not mean you have to have a naked woman as a sex object in almost every yoghurt advert… Instead of portraying her intellect, she is more likely to be reduced to her gender. “
To get a reaction, we took Ben’s comment to the German Federal Family Minister, Katarina Barley (a politician with the centre-left Social Democratic Party). What does she think about the idea of a ban on sexist advertising?
Adverts must stop reducing women to sex objects purely designed to sell products. That’s why we wanted to enforce a corresponding ban on sexist advertising in this legislature. Unfortunately, that was not possible with our coalition partner [Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats]. The image of women in a society also inevitably shapes people’s behaviour. That’s why it’s important that women are treated with dignity, especially in advertising.
It’s not our intention to ban women’s bodies being shown, such as for underwear or shower gel commercials. However, The principle of ‘sex sells’ with which everything is advertised is sexist and humiliating for all women.
For another perspective, we put Ben’s comment to the German journalist Birgit Kelle. She advocates positive images of traditional gender roles in her articles and books. Does she believe that prohibiting sexist advertising would improve the status of women?
No, I basically do not believe that. We cannot agree in Germany or Europe what constitutes ‘sexist advertising’. We see in the debate that sexism is interpreted quite differently. If we want to ban things, we have to define them first. What is sexist? What is just funny, which is perhaps permissive but not yet sexist? Opinions and definitions widely diverge on this.
I believe that we are better off with common sense. If in doubt, we have a national advertising agency that deals with the borderline cases and makes decisions. I find it difficult to accept that an official in his office should decide by himself what advertising in public spaces may and may not be seen.
Finally, we put Ben’s comment to Dr. Stevie Schmiedel, the director of the NGO Pinkstinks, who regularly organises campaigns against advertising depicting narrow gender roles. Would she support a ban?
I believe that a ban on sexist advertising can improve the status of women. The question is whether we need such a ban or whether there are other ways to raise awareness in society. Pinkstinks, for example, has launched the app Werbemelder*in with the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, with which one can report sexist advertising. Then it’s reviewed by us and possibly classified as sexist or stereotyping.
In addition, we also offer awareness-raising activities in the form of educational materials, counselling, and materials to talk about sexism. So companies no longer have to put their yoghurt, fishhooks, and dog food next to a naked woman.
Should sexist advertising be banned? Or is it simply a matter of taste? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!