STAFF BLOG: SEXIST ADVERTISING PERPETUATES SEXIST ATTITUDES

BY SARAH GOSPER, RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT THE EQUALITY INSTITUTE 

27/02/2017

During the coverage of the Australian Open this year, viewers were forced to sit through a series of monotonous and tiresome advertisements that ranged from banking adverts to whitewashed Australian television drama. Though tedious and boring, for the most part I was unfazed by them. There was one commercial, however, that I found not only irritating, but highly offensive and infuriating. It came from Ultra Tune.

In this advertisement (seen here), we see two women driving a car, and as they approach a set of traffic lights, the muffler detaches from their vehicle and falls to the road before catching fire. The two women scream and jump out of the car. One of them uses their phone to contact Ultra Tune, and the other fumbles with a fire extinguisher. Both the women then feel it would be a great idea to use using the fire extinguisher on each other, and we get close-up shots of their breasts and bottoms. The footage slows down to focus on these body parts, and the women start screaming again and run from the car as it explodes, spraying oil all over them.

I wrote to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) complaining about the demeaning and offensive nature of this commercial, and its overt sexualisation and objectification of women. Specifically, I wrote that the advertisement breaches the following sections of the Advertiser Code of Ethics:

  1. Section 2.1: advertisements shall not portray or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political beliefs.
  2. Section 2.2: advertising or marketing communications should not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people.

Last week, I received a 14 page case report detailing exactly why both the ASB Board and Ultra Tune decided to dismiss my complaint. In their response to Section 2.1, Ultra Tune declared that their advertisement does not breach the Code because:

it is clearly apparent that the situation portrayed in the Muffler advertisement is hyper-realistic with comedic ‘slap-stick’ humour”.

They maintained that the advertisement does not vilify, humiliate or ridicule women, or portray them in a negative stereotype as unintelligent or helpless because:

“at all times the female actors are in full control of the vehicle.”

Ultra Tune further noted that their attempt to use the fire extinguisher is expected of any reasonable person, regardless of their gender, and that the oil falling on them at the end of the commercial is, again, a portrayal of a “hyper-realistic comedic situation”.

The Board similarly maintained that the advertisement does not discriminate against or vilify women in any way, or depict them as stupid or helpless. In their response they noted that:

while the women’s handling of the fire extinguishers is not ideal, in the Board’s view the women are depicted as being aware and in control therefore there is no suggestion that these women are stupid or helpless with regards to their predicament”.

The emphasis in this determination is on the degree of control the women have over the situation and their capacity to make rational decisions. Calling Ultra Tune for assistance and reaching for an extinguisher indeed are logical next steps. The degree of control the women have over the situation, however, is another matter, and their actual use of the fire extinguisher calls into question whether they are indeed being depicted as capable and bright.

Using a fire extinguisher is a simple and relatively easy task. We can assume that if they were capable of lifting the extinguisher out of the car and carrying it to the back where the flames were, then they were probably able to direct it at the flames instead of at each other. In this respect, the advertisement actually does depict the women as being stupid and not in control, as they decide that the best course of action would be to spray the foam at each other instead of at the flames.

In regards to Section 2.2, both the Board and Ultra Tune denied that the scene that focuses on the women’s saturated breasts and bottoms, bouncing and bumping in to each other, is exploitative, sexualised or degrading. Ultra Tune stated that the:

single close frame of the female actors’ bottoms was intended to show/emphasise the change of momentum resulting in the actors bumping into each other… the women’s breasts are enhanced by the style of the clothing they are wearing… and the women’s physical features are not the focus of the advertisement… When viewed in the context of the surrounding scenes, we submit it cannot be reasonably seen as exploitative or degrading”.

They also once again re-emphasised the supposed comical nature of the scene, by pointing out that:

the oil falling and splashing on the actors near the end of the Muffler advertisement cannot reasonably be deemed exploitative – it reflects the ‘slap stick’ nature of the advertisement.”

Interestingly, a minority of the Board agreed that aspects of the commercial are indeed exploitative, sexualised and degrading. They found that during the fire extinguisher scene,

the focus on the women’s bodies is gratuitous and in their view presents women in manner which is both exploitative, as it reduces them to parts of a body, and degrading, because it implies that the women should be thought less of because they can’t use a fire extinguisher without wiggling their bottoms and spraying one another’s breasts.

Despite the focus being on the women’s jiggling breasts and bottoms for at least 12 seconds of this 30 second commercial, the Board considered that it is only “very fleeting” and that:

in their view while it is exploitative to focus, albeit briefly, on women’s body parts, the women are depicted as being in control and having fun which is not degrading or demeaning to women.

When I finished reading these decisions, my blood boiled and my heart rate skyrocketed. I immediately felt the way many women do when we complain about sexist jokes, or object to our sexualisation: ignored and belittled. Women are constantly told to ‘lighten-up’, that it was ‘just a joke’ and ‘not to take things so seriously’, and in this instance, I felt like the ASB was doing just that. Telling me to laugh along with this great example of Aussie ‘slap-stick’ humour, to quieten that pesky feminist mind of mine, and just relax.

Well, I refuse to accept that the overt sexualisation and objectification of women in advertising is funny or acceptable or even warranted. I am alarmed by the decision of the Board, who agreed that although the commercial was exploitative, it was still acceptable to air it because the women appeared to be having a good time. This sends the message that so long as we look like we’re enjoying it, it’s alright to sexualise and objectify us. It also tells us that such sexist portrayals of women are socially acceptable. This sadly reveals not only the normalisation of sexism, but also the deeply rooted social prejudices about women’s relative status to men.

The refusal of Ultra Tune to acknowledge that these advertisements are sexist and offensive to large segments of the Australian community gives us a clear insight into their corporate culture: sexism is funny, and sex sells. It’s not surprising that they’ve had a string of notoriously sexist and offensive advertisements that have drawn hundreds of complaints. In fact, in 2016 alone, three of their ads made the top 10 list of most complained about advertisements of that year. Only one their ads (seen here) has been banned by the ASB. They clearly give no regard to the harm these advertisements cause, and it’s unlikely they will willingly stop producing them.

But the issue here is not only Ultra Tune itself. It is also the lacklustre attitude of the ASB in dealing with complaints and their unwillingness to ban commercials that they themselves have acknowledged to be sexist and degrading to women. The stereotypes perpetuated in these commercials are extremely harmful, and they contribute to an ongoing climate of gender inequality, that fuels discrimination, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

The representation of women in advertising has a direct bearing on how they are treated and viewed within society. In a recent nationwide study by Plan and Our Watch on girls’ and young women’s views on gender inequality in Australia, it found that half of all girls and young women (aged 15-19 years) agreed that they are never or seldom valued for their brains over their looks; only 16 percent feel that they are always valued for their brains and ability. It also found that one in four girls disagreed that their teachers would take action against sexist comments or behaviour on school grounds, and only one in 10 agreed that they are always treated equally to boys.[1] Further, in a 2008 national telephone survey, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in three women (18-64 years) have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, with 65% experiencing that harassment in the workplace.[2] Moreover, a 2016 study with young Victorian workers aged 15-24, found that sexual harassment is a daily occurrence for most young women in the workplace, and its normalisation has resulted in increased levels of impunity.[3]

The ongoing discriminatory and sexist treatment of women is, in part, attributed to the way women are represented in the media. Young people who are still learning appropriate and respectful gender relations are highly influenced by what they see and hear. These advertisements reinforce tired and archaic stereotypes about women, and their ongoing sexualisation implies that they should be treated like objects and second-class citizens.

The poor decision making of the ASB excuses and legitimates every day sexism. It is time for the ASB to take action and work to support the cultural shift we’re experiencing in our society today.

If you also believe that the ASB needs to revise their interpretation of the Advertising Code of Ethics to better reflect a more gender equal society, please sign the petition below:

https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/change-sexist-australian-advertising-standards.html


References

[1] Plan International Australia and Our Watch (2016) Everyday sexism: girls’ and young women’s views on gender inequality in Australia.

[2] Human Rights Commission (2008) Sexual Harassment, Serious Business.

[3] Young Workers Centre (2016) Health and Safety Snapshot 2016.