Sex and the billboard
Forbidden view: This beer ad was ruled to be discriminatory against women
The advertising industry, essentially run by men and working for male-dominated clients, frequently cannot resist pandering to clichés and sexual stereotypes, especially when marketing to an essentially male audience.
Sex sells, as they say in the trade. If a few airy-fairy sociologists worry about the commoditisation of human relationships or the over-sexualisation of our society, who cares?
Thus, smokers are treated to pictures of steamy Latinas on hand-rolled tobacco pouches, or long-legged girlies drape themselves over sports cars at motor shows. Even some German milk products apparently can't be sold without touting a nubile blonde, dressed in a plunge bra and dirndl, waiting expectantly in the barn.
Critics of such sexist nonsense are all too often decried as po-faced. True, some very creative advertising is tongue-in-cheek. Where, however, does one draw the line? When, say, a DIY store advertises a shower cabinet, is it permissible to show a naked lady enjoying a shower?
Julia Busse, MD of the German Advertising Standards Council (Deutscher Werberat), says yes, as long as all is not revealed and there is no titillating pose. "It's a question of getting the balance right. We all live in the world as it is today. (Even) exaggeration, provocation and playing with clichés are bona fide stylistic elements."
Growing criticism of sexist advertising
However since its foundation in 1972, the German Advertising Standards Council has mostly had to rule on complaints involving the degrading portrayal of women or on discrimination against them. In 14 cases the Council even had to issue a public rebuke against the companies concerned.
"We attribute this to increasing sensitivities within the population. Job quotas for women and sexual equality are (important) social subjects so that nearly every portrayal of women in advertising has now become the subject of critical examination," says Busse.
Of the 387 complaints reviewed by the council 28 were in relation to the food industry. None of the firms concerned had broken the laws on advertising to children, alcohol, gambling or, since 2009, food. But their ads were seen by some to contravene generally acceptable social values.
One seller of sausage snacks, for instance, portrayed a little boy dressed in a superman cape riding his bicycle down a playground slide. He falls off without hurting himself and revives his strength with a sausage snack. Parents complained that children might be tempted to copy this.
Given such cases, perhaps all ads, like cigarettes, should be issued with a warning that advertising is potentially "injurious to your health". Without the efforts of the German Advertising Standards Council, it would certainly be more sexist.
Related article in German: By Gerrit-Milena Strätling in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 11, 13.03.2015
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