In the middle of the (Thai) night, slightly out of kilter after all the flying, and up with jet-lagged (or rather, jet-fuelled) children, I got the very good news by email that the Advertising Standards Authority had upheld a swathe of complaints against this billboard:
The advertisement, like several others for the services of this company, was first the subject of a complaint to the ASA in May 2015. The Chair of the Complaints Board tossed it out without sending it to the Board to consider.
A few months ago, shocked at that decision, I wrote this formal complaint against the billboard, and fifty or so of you added your names to it, via Facebook, Twitter and the blog post. Thanks! We, and many others, argued that the full Board needed to consider our complaints, and the ASA then agreed.
The first complaint received at that point, from K Walker, went ahead as the representative of all them. A staff member at the ASA rang me to let me know that would be the procedure, so they were clearly taking us seriously.
The written decision will be released to the media next week, and we complainants have been asked not to release it. All the complainants – and there may well be hundreds – have been able to read it, though, and I have seen the result discussed extensively on social media. Since the cat is out of the bag, I thought I would make some preliminary comments here ahead of a fuller discussion next week, perhaps.
[Update: a few weeks later, and the decision is still not on the website, so here it is as a PDF for you to read in full. It’s worth a look.]
Victory: The ASA ruled that the billboard was sexist
The overall result is that the advertiser will be asked to remove these billboards, because they are ‘offensive and sexist’. So that’s a great result!
The majority decided the billboard was in breach of Basic Principle 4 (social responsibility) and Rule 5 (offensiveness) of the Code of Ethics and Basic Principle 5 of the Code for People in Advertising (exploitative and degrading to women; sex appeal used to advertise unrelated product).
A minority disagreed and said (like the Chair in the original dismissal) that the ad was funny, and not something that could be said to cause ‘widespread offence’. I find this staggering.
Rule 5 of the Code of Ethics says:
Offensiveness – Advertisements should not contain anything which in the light of generally prevailing community standards is likely to cause serious or widespread offence taking into account the context, medium, audience and product (including services).
K Walker said in her complaint that she had spoken to Rape Crisis and The Women’s Institute, who both said that in their view the billboard was offensive.
Given the apparently very large number of complainants, the minority decision makes me wonder if ‘widespread offence’ in light of ‘generally prevailing community standards’ is a useful test. I suspect that either a) Board members are interpreting it, in practice, as ‘offensive to me’; and/or b) in appealing to what offends a lot of people, it fails to protect people in minorities, or to allow for social change in what is offensive (as distinct from what is no longer offensive, which the ASA is pretty quick to allow for).
If an ad was offensive to, say, Sikh people, that may not cause ‘widespread offence’ because they are a small group in New Zealand. But I’d be pretty keen for their religious sensibilities to carry at least some weight when it comes to commercial advertising (which is hardly the core of protected free speech). Maybe it’s time to rethink this test.
But that’s the problem. The Code is formulated and administered by the advertising industry (with a mix of industry representatives and ‘members of the public’ on the complaints and appeal boards). Thinking progressively and proactively about what makes for a healthy society just isn’t the industry’s core business. So why do we leave it to them to regulate? I don’t think it’s working very well.
I’m sure there are many good people involved in the industry and the ASA, but it seems to me, looking at this decision and the many others I’ve followed, that the tide is simply against prioritising the social good. The ASA seems quick to find that things are not or no longer offensive to Kiwis, but slow to pick up on new understandings of how advertising media can harm society. Which takes us to the major disappointment of this ruling.
Defeat: The ASA ruled that the billboard DID NOT promote rape culture
The Board made sure to say it was unanimous in rejecting our argument that this billboard promoted rape culture.
This is hugely disappointing in a decade which has witnessed teenagers running organised rings of rape and social media degradation and alarming rates of sexual violence across a wide range of social sectors – not to mention the Prime Minister trivialising sexual violence this week, in Parliament.
Advertising must be socially responsible. This advertisement is not. It promotes ‘rape culture,’ the pervasive, largely unstated set of beliefs in a society that encourage male aggression, and sexual violence against women. Rape culture sends the message that women’s consent is not very important and that coercing women into sexual contact is acceptable.
Sexuality and psychology academic at the University of Auckland, Dr Nicola Gavey says this about rape culture, on the university web project Sexual Politics Now:
At its core the term rape culture draws attention to two key points – our society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape and the way that mundane aspects of our everyday gendered culture actively create the ‘conditions of possibility’ for sexual violence.
Contrary to Gilbert’s claim that we “sanction strongly against” rape, messages about sexual violence in our society are rather more two-faced. Yes, rape and other forms of sexual violation are on the books as serious crimes. But a whole lot of social prejudices (about gender, sexuality, class and race) affect whether or not a rape will ever be reported to the police, let alone whether it will be investigated and taken through the courts. These prejudices also coalesce in the court of public opinion to trivialize some rapes, to blame and silence victim/survivors, and sometimes even to pat men on the back for borderline legal sexual conquests. So while some cases of rape garner widespread social condemnation, many more remain invisible.
At the same time, rape is made possible through the ways men are taught to understand their sexuality. The way they are encouraged to develop a sense of sexual entitlement and to regard women as props for indulging it. Not all men take up this invitation. Of course not. But there is a systemic problem in our society with the messages young men are being given. It is fed in equal doses by conservative traditional cultural ideals for masculinity and contemporary portrayals of male sexuality within popular music, advertising, mainstream pornography, men’s magazines, gaming, and other spheres of popular culture.
I am certain that Access Solutions does not intend their billboard to promote rape or rape culture. But in fact, that is what the billboard does.
The advertisement is only funny if the ‘access problems’ can refer both to pasting up the poster and to getting access to a woman’s body, particularly her naked breasts.
The very idea that a woman’s body is something a man needs help getting ‘access’ to presents women as objects, and says that their consent doesn’t matter. The double entendre of this billboard says: “Is a woman saying ‘no’ to you? We can help you get access!”
If anyone finds this interpretation and its connection to rape culture hard to understand, may I suggest imagining you have a ten-year-old in front of you who is asking why the billboard is funny. Try to explain the humour.
Probably unintentionally, this advertisement contributes to rape culture and is socially harmful. This is a breach of the Code, as it a) is not prepared with a due sense of social responsibility, b) promotes violence in the form of disregard for consent to sexual contact and c) supports rape culture which puts women (and men) at widespread risk of abuse.
The representative complaint argued that the billboard promoted rape culture, too. To be frank, I find it hard to see how anyone can deny that claim. It’s an ad that says women’s consent to being touched is not very important.
Any image that exploits women for men’s enjoyment supports rape culture. Worse, any image that jokes about finding solutions to ‘access problems’ when it comes to women’s bodies is actively promoting rape culture: this ad supports the notion that women’s consent can be overridden if you just push hard enough.
I can only conclude that the members of the complaints board simply do not understand what rape culture is, or how images in the media contribute to it.
I would love to see members of the ASA seek some education on rape culture. Wouldn’t it be great if they asked someone like Dr Nicola Gavey to do a workshop for them on how exploitative advertising affects real people in New Zealand, and how the current Code can be applied to make our national culture safer?
[Update: Four weeks later and several people have told me these billboards are still up in their neighbourhood. The ASA is looking into that. If you have seen one lately, please contact the ASA (or me) to let them know its location.]
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