Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On behalf of the admen of the world, I am sorry

This post contains relevant images of nudity and other mature content.

Today — March 8, 2011 — is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

But as many bloggers, journalists and commenters will point out, women's equality still has a long way to go.

When I think about what has changed since 1911, the progress towards legal, financial and social gender equality in my own country has been unprecedented. Women vote, women own businesses, women make their own reproductive choices, and women have equal protection under the law.

That's on the surface, anyway. Look a little deeper, and you will see that there are still issues with pay equity, discrimination against mothers, and the pervasive threat of sexual violence. Look a little farther, and you will see that most women in the world are little better — and usually worse — off than Canadian women in 1911.

But let's look on the bright side. I live and work in a society where women can — and do — choose their own paths. I count many women among my esteemed colleagues. Powerful adwomen like Arlene Dickinson are shaking up the old boys network both in the industry and in popular culture. So everything should be cool, right?

Wrong. Oh... so... very wrong.

A quick browse through my RSS feed this morning shows what advertising is doing to women today:

Copyranter: American Apparel Ad Watch: (nsfw) Neat Pleats & Teats

Mark rips on American Apparel for its latest print ad, showing two female models in pleasted pants leaning back so their bare breasts point upwards, and their faces are obscured. "The pants-optional CEO probably paid out even lower model day rates than usual," he snarks.

(UPDATE: Dov Charney, AA's "Pants-Optional CEO", is being sued for sexually assaulting a female teen employee.)

Illegal Advertising: Naked Chicks Skating

That really is the headline, of both the video ad the post. And that is exactly what it is — a minute of four nearly-identically generic women skateboarding in the nude. (At least when Queen did this for their 1978 Bicycle Race video, they were considerate enough to give the nude women protective gear!) The advertiser? Playboy.
Ads of The World Blog - First look at Lexus Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue ad

'Nuff said.

Adland: Jennifer Aniston Sex tape - possible the worst "viral" ever made.

Yes, I covered that one yesterday. And it quite possibly is.

(Somewhat surprisingly, Adrants, whose author Steve Hall also writes for Playboy's The Smoking Jacket, had a pretty harmless recent feed.)

To be fair, most of these industry bloggers use the examples of "sexy ads" to criticize the casual sexism of the advertising industry. But the big question is: If so many people are against it, why doesn't it change?

I have my own theory, and it is something for which we are all — men and women alike — culpable.

It goes to the nature of today's media, and our increased tolerance to sexuality.

I'm not talking about the "good" kind of tolerance here, either. I mean "tolerance" in the drug and alcohol context — decreasing sensitivity that requires higher doses for the same effect.

Here's a sexy/ist ad from the 1960s:

You're looking at somebody's Grandma.
Blatantly sexual, yet pretty tame by today's standards, no?

This is nowhere near their most graphic. Sasha Grey did a full frontal one.

To be honest, these American Apparel ads don't even titillate me anymore. Why would they? Women's sexuality has been so devalued — from overexposure in the media — that it takes something truly shocking to get through.

There's a much more explicit version here, but I suspect it make be 'shopped.

That's right. Advertising and porn have come together (pun intended) into an orgy of over-the-top sensuality. And yet, the more sexually graphic the ads become, and the more extreme porn gets, the less effective it becomes. So the producers have to turn up the volume once again.

But this is all harmless fun, right? We're human after all, and some of us are heterosexual men who respond instinctively to these images. Sex sells.

But then how do we address the use of increasingly bizarre sexuality in fashion ads aimed at women? Two great new photoblogs I just discovered — I Hurt I Am In Fashion and (more explicitly) The Fashion Tit — call their industry to task on the commoditization of women's nudity in ads and photo spreads.

I Hurt I Am In Fashion
And that's the bottom line: Commoditization. And it's not just advertising. It's all the trashy media we consume like starving wolves.

Anna Holmes, who writes for Jezebel, published an interesting essay in the New York Times titled "The Disposable Woman" in which she blames reality TV for people's flip acceptance of women being treated as sexual commodities by people like Charlie Sheen:

"These assumptions — about women, about powerful men, about bad behavior — have roots that go way back but find endorsement in today’s unscripted TV culture. Indeed, it’s difficult for many to discern any difference between Mr. Sheen’s real-life, round-the-clock, recorded outbursts and the sexist narratives devised by reality television producers, in which women are routinely portrayed as backstabbing floozies, and dreadful behavior by males is explained away as a side effect of unbridled passion or too much pilsner.


On reality television, gratuitous violence and explicit sexuality are not only entertainment but a means to an end. These enthusiastically documented humiliations are positioned as necessities in the service of some final prize or larger benefit — a marriage proposal, a modeling contract, $1 million. But they also make assault and abasement seem commonplace, acceptable behavior, tolerated by women and encouraged in men"

And there it is again, "tolerated". Desensitized. We are on a dangerous trajectory that will not reach its apogee until we are are so numb that we end up watching explicit live sex shows as online branded entertainment for some Goddamned running shoes — without raising even an eyebrow.

And for this, I am sorry. Although I don't usually do "that kind" of advertising, I have to take responsibility as both a part of the industry and as a male consumer who can't seem to help but have his head turned by hypersexualized ads.

We do, however, have a choice. All consumers do. While I am against unnecessary censorship, I am all for rational consumers who take matters into their own hands. Don't like an ad? Don't buy the product! [He wrote while shifting uncomfortably in his American Apparel organic cotton undershirt.] And let them know what you think on their public social media channels.

But don't forget that positive reinforcement is the best force for change. Figure out which brands are respecting you, and support them. Give them a shout-out. Tell your friends.

And don't be afraid to like ads that actually get sexy right. That make you feel good about yourself, your body, and your place in society. There's a huge difference between being sex-positive and sex-crazed.

As Dr. Gwen Sharp, of Sociological Images, told me in an interview yesterday:

"I think the sad thing is that we see so few examples of ads that are sexy without being sexist. It’s actually somewhat odd, given that advertisers claim to want—and need—to come up with something original or striking that will draw viewers’ attention, and yet we have this major failure of imagination when it comes to representing sexuality, with advertisers drawing on the same sexist messages over and over. The originality seems to be only in exactly how you tell that sexist story of female objectification, but not in actually finding new ways to represent or use sexuality itself."


  1. So lots of people -- probably even more women than men -- get off on seeing young-ish women exploited and humiliated.

    To make any change, we have to engage people head-on: it's no more productive to treat people like passive vessels innocently filled with misconceptions by an evil media/advertising system, than it is to treat alcoholics as an innocent victims of the distillers and brewers. In both cases, you're just giving them an excuse not to take responsibility and change.

    Whether they acknowledge it or not, people have agency -- they choose to like and consume this trash. Make them stand up, person by person, and explain why.

  2. I think we're on the same page, here, David. That was sort of my call-to-action. :)

  3. The fact is that women (gay or not) are attracted to images of other women (naked or not) ... this probably explains the increasing use of sexuality in ads aimed at women. Women can engage in the fantasy of looking like the model, or being the model, or being attracted to the model. And of course, feeling inferior to the unhealthily thin, air-brushed perfection of the model. Male and female models are simply living props. The whole desensitization issue makes me think of the film "Idiocracy".

  4. I posted a clip from Jean Kilbourne's "Killing us softly" earlier today ( http://adland.tv/node/151455 ) and you're on the same thought path as she is with the dangerous trajectory of how it all gets worse when we are desensitized. Woman is dehumanized.

  5. I saw it, Dab :)

    I reposted that clip on Osocio and gave you credit: http://osocio.org/message/international_womens_day_at_100_invitation_to_share/

  6. Silly me, of course you've already seen that clip.

    Also shame on you. I can honestly say that I've never spent a dime on American Apparel. I practice "do-not-sponsor-bad-advertising" to the extreme (less easy now that I am a parent, sometimes the kids call the shots), and used to (in all seriousness) send my own mother lists of brands she was not allowed to buy because their ads stunk to high heaven. I wasn't just avoiding sexist ads, I wouldn't buy products sold by crap euro-dubbed ads either. Those lists got long and were revised whenever new campaigns appeared and agencies lost accounts.

    It's easy to start this, just start buying stuff that had a *good* ad, whenever opportunity presents itself. Quick! Name a detergent campaign that you like/doesn't annoy the heck out of you. That's now your favorite brand.

  7. woah, cross-posting. :9 I hadn't seen Osocio yet, thanks for that. *hat tip*

  8. Just watched the Lexus clip, and I'm seriously disturbed by it. Something so dark and callous about driving a sportscar around a bikiniclad women "as close as possible" just for a photo that moght as well have been photoshopped in the end. Sure sure, just stick the meatpuppet in the ywllow bikini right there in the middle, and lets get a good look at that car. *shiver*

  9. Shame on me, indeed. (Especially with the latest sexual assault and confinemnet accusations against Dov.)

    Those t-shirts are one of my shameful hypocrisies. But I've never found a better-fitting undershirt. At least it's organic...?

  10. @Dabitch:

    Plus, Nissan already went there: http://workthatmatters.blogspot.com/2011/02/women-and-cars-and-women-as-cars.html

  11. Ha! Yep, Nissan went there, so not only is it callous, it's done before. Gag.

    And organic, that's what I don't understand about AA, everyone is quite pleased with the organic-angle, and the american worker angle, so the company has positives (and everyone I know say the product fits very well too). The ads exploitative style is not only unnecessary, when they have better things to 'sell' on, it also goes against the happy-worker ethos as it so happily exploits the female shop-workers. Kinda schizophrenic. Maybe even a little PETA in that it happily exploits woman as long as it saves factory worker (as if the two can't be the same thing)

  12. I also believe that is why vampirism is so hyped these days, we have gotten used to comoditization sucking life's blood out us. The fascination with women's sexuality and at near starvation weight just goes to show how todays institution values its women - in a state of complete nutritional depravity, otherwise how could they ensure to continue economic deprivation too. So its a power issue, and to turn the tables we need a massive civil suit that ensures women are given representation in government and other leadership roles equal to their population proportion. Until that happens nothing can change.