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Misogynistic Ads and the Oxygen of Publicity


Retro-sexist advertising may be presented as ironic, but it features the same, familiar images feminists rallied against decades ago, argues the author. What to do?

Compare two advertisements—both use a picture of a young, attractive, white woman to sell their product. Both women look sweetly perplexed and nervous. One, for the Mini Automatic, is taglined For Simple Driving and shows the model clutching a steering wheel and biting her lip, daunted at the task of driving a car. The other, for a Samsung camera, is taglined “Too Smart For Amy with its model holding up the product and pouting adorably, eyes wide with confusion to show she is completely flummoxed by this complex piece of technology. Can you guess which one was made in 1970 and which one was released in 2012? Me neither.

Samsung’s campaign, released this month using British reality TV star Amy Childs, is the latest in an ongoing line of anti-woman adverts that have sparked online outrage. First we had Wodka Vodka’s “Escort Quality, Hooker Pricing billboard beaming out over the Bronx. Another vodka company, Belvedere, swiftly followed suit with an online ad appearing to condone oral rape. More recently, there was Stüssy Amsterdam’s “Strip For Likes campaign on Facebook, which turned its model into a “catwalk stripper” by promising that she would remove an item of clothing for every user who clicked the Like button.

The retro-sexism, supposedly ironic misogyny and blatant objectification that modern advertising indulges in reveals an ugly new problem in old clothing. Culture, media, and most importantly laws have changed since the days women were depicted as too stupid to drive, vote or open a bottle of ketchup, yet advertisers didn’t seem to get the memo. Or did they?

Perhaps the flurry of outrage on Twitter, Facebook and all over the blogosphere is exactly what ad executives want. The Belvedere ad was taken down within the hour after a deluge of complaints—but who among us had even heard their brand name before they suggested physically forcing a woman to “go down easily”? Commenters on Stüssy Amsterdam’s Facebook page have called their campaign “tacky,” “asinine” and “gross,” but in statistical terms, these complainers are just more page traffic for Stussy. Whether we despise or approve of Samsung’s ad campaign, it’s got people talking, and if you believe that no publicity is bad publicity, then we’re all guilty—feminist objectors and drooling punters alike—of feeding a sexist company’s success.

Because the eye-poppingly offensive nature of these ads seems too blatant to be accidental, it seems that marketers actively want to go ahead with an ad that will offend, precisely because of the furor it will cause. Any marketing specialist worth their salt must know that sexist words or imagery alone won’t sell a product any more, but that the firestorm caused by them will bring in more free publicity than a 100-strong PR team ever could.

So what’s the solution? Zip our lips and refuse to engage with the lowlifes who joke about rape, commodify the female body, and portray women as morons? Much as I sometimes would like to, I don’t believe that’s the answer. Taking the high road can’t mean simply ignoring what’s going on in our culture. Sexism and misogyny have become joke-worthy subjects in such an insidious way that people are now failing to even identify them any more. Imagine if racist or anti-semitic ads were popping up online every other day and were defended by those calling protesters “oversensitive,” labeling any objections “political correctness gone mad” and telling them to “get over it.” Would we be told just to turn a blind eye and not give such companies the oxygen of publicity? More likely, we’d be calling for the heads of the responsible marketing executives on a plate.

Sexists’ favored method of shutting down feminists is to call them humorless, and accuse the men who support them of being emasculated and brainwashed. Well, it’s time to stand up and say that there’s nothing deficient about not having your laughter button pressed by the degradation of women. Anyone offended by misogyny needs to keep speaking out about it, even if it runs the risk of giving the perpetrator free advertising. Plus, there is such a thing as bad publicity—or Rush Limbaugh wouldn’t have shed 50+ advertising sponsors after recent online outrage at his misogyny. Reputations can certainly be tarnished, and refusing to keep quiet about sexist advertising can achieve that.

So don’t fall for the unhelpful advice to just ignore them and they’ll go away. That’s what misogynists want you to do. Just look at history—those who stood up to sexism achieved a lot more change than those who closed their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and sang “LA LA LA, I can’t hear you.”

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