March 16, 2015

Sex and the billboard

Sexist beer advertising (photo: Deutscher Werberat)
Forbidden view: This beer ad was ruled to be discriminatory against women (photo: Deutscher Werberat)
Men are generally suckers for a pretty face. And it is highly amusing to see how sex appeal will open the purse strings of even the most flint-hearted male penny-pincher.

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.

Podcast microphone (photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)
(photo: Gerhard Seybert-Fotolia)

Podcast. Click arrow to listen to an audio version of the text:

Lebensmittel Zeitung with digital sister (photo: LZ)
Our German B2B newspaper, Lebensmittel Zeitung, in print & digital
Read in German: By legal editor Gerrit-Milena Strätling in
Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 11, 13.03.2015

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Comments for this article are closed.

  1. Nadir Khan
    Created 16 March, 2015 14:07 | Permanent link


    The best.

  2. Frank Brown
    Created 17 March, 2015 13:24 | Permanent link

    Sexy Billboards

    Sexy billboards are dangerous! Why? Male drivers can lose concentration.

  3. Prof. Dr. Ulrike Detmers
    Created 18 March, 2015 14:13 | Permanent link

    Wanted: A Scandinavian Approach

    We clearly don't only need a Scandinavian cultural approach as regards a quota for women in top management. We obviously also need one when it comes to advertising products.

    Swedish advertising provides an excellent example of how products can be marketed with respect for sexual equality and without bare breasts and bottoms.

    In Germany there are still too many in the advertising industry who can only think in terms of sexist clichés.

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