I went to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (yes, again) about a billboard where a naked woman’s body is used to sell… scaffolding. And cranes. And stuff like that.
It came up in the feminist mothers’ Facebook group I’m part of. Lots of people were appalled at the billboard and had been complaining to the company without result. Their messages were just deleted from the company’s Facebook page, apparently.
You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward argument, since the Advertising Standards Code says:
5. Advertisements should not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people in society to promote the sale of products or services. In particular people should not be portrayed in a manner which uses sexual appeal simply to draw attention to an unrelated product. Children must not be portrayed in a manner which treats them as objects of sexual appeal.
Here’s the billboard:
A naked woman is lying down, looking sultry, while a man in overalls and hardhat stretches his arms over where her naked breasts are. To advertise scaffolding and cranes.
Facebook and Twitter tell me there are a lot of people who think this is a degrading image. It juxtaposes a prone, naked woman with a clothed, upright man. She is stretched out with her arm behind her head; his arms are all over her breast. It’s exploitative and degrading.
The viewer is asked: ‘Access problems?’ Now, tell me, what kind of access problems are being hinted at here? This is my reading of the double entendre: ‘Will a woman not let you touch her body? We can solve that for you!’
[For more on that, unpacking why this imagery is so degrading and promotes rape culture, see this excellent post by Maria McMillan.]
This ad promotes rape culture: the idea that men are entitled to ‘access’ women’s bodies, regardless of women’s consent.
And it has nothing to do with scaffolding! What flipping century are we in?
The code says you shouldn’t do that. It explicitly says ‘people should not be portrayed in a manner which uses sexual appeal simply to draw attention to an unrelated product.’
Surely this is an open and shut case?
Sadly, it is just shut.
People complained much earlier than me and the Chairman (sic) of the Complaints Board dismissed it. Didn’t even let the complaint go to the Complaints Board.
Because the Chairman thought it was funny.
There’s an exception in the same Code that says this:
6. Humour and satire are natural and accepted features of the relationship between individuals and groups within the community. Humorous and satirical treatment of people and groups of people is acceptable, provided that, taking into account generally prevailing community standards, the portrayal is not likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule.
Sure, you want to recognise satire when you see it and know when it’s just a good-natured laugh, blah, blah, blah. We wouldn’t want a case of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD, after all, would we?
But I don’t see how that really applies here. Sure the ad is trying to be funny. But this isn’t a ‘satirical treatment’ of women, it’s using a woman’s body, portraying a woman as a passive, powerless object.
Here’s what the Chairman wrote in her decision:
The Chairman was of the view that the Basic Principle 6 applied to the complaint before her. She said the difficulty the man was shown having while placing the next part of the advertisement, that would obviously be the woman’s breast, coupled with the text “Access problem?” relied on a level of risqué humour and double entendre to provide a contextual link between the man’s plight and the product.
While the Chairman acknowledged some people may find this type of humour distasteful, it was provided for under Basic Principle 6. Therefore, the Chairman was of the view the advertisement did not reach the threshold to have used sexual appeal to sell an unrelated product.
It seems to me that the Chairman has just created a whole new legal principle that is not in the Code. She has invented a ‘threshold’ that you have to pass in order to invoke principle 5. That threshold is apparently not reached if there’s humour involved. This makes no logical sense to me, but the result is clear. You’re not judged as using sexual appeal to sell something if it’s FUNNY.
You have to appeal ASA decisions within 14 days – and you have to be the complainant – so there’s nowhere left to go with this. This is now the state of things. In 2015.
So feel free to degrade and exploit women as often as you like, okay? AS LONG AS YOU’RE FUNNY.
Does anyone else feel like the ASA is pretty much no use at all?
UPDATE: I decided to make a formal complaint after all, and see if the ASA will take another look at this advertisement. You can see the text of my complaint here.
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