Calling out sexist advertising

Protein World 'Bikini Body' ad

Woman protesting against the now banned ‘beach body ready’ advert on the London Underground. 350 complaints about the objectifying nature of the campaign and “concerns” over the weight loss claims made in the campaign, meant the advert was pulled.

Sexism is so ingrained in our lives that many people fail to question even the most blatantly sexist advertisements. Critics are silenced with arguments such as you just can’t take a joke or don’t buy it if you don’t like it. This of course ignores the fact that many advertisements are built upon harmful stereotypes. But with so many sexist ads out there, it all seems normal to us and therefore we tacitly accept gender-based discrimination as part of our daily lives.

by Robert Lutz

My goal here is not to define what counts as sexism in advertising but to inspire the reader to take a stand against sexist ads. I recently tried to get such an ad removed from Facebook. I cut out the Facebook support team and filed a complaint directly with a regulatory body, taking a David vs. Goliath approach. This method is just one of many routes I could have pursued to address this issue; from mobilising people to protest outside the company’s offices to getting the company’s own employees to condemn the sexist practices it perpetuates.

Regardless of whether you take an individual or collective approach, the most important point is if you want to see change happen, you have to keep pushing.

Case Study: OTTO’s Campaign featuring “Irmgard”

While browsing Facebook late September, an ad by German retail giant, OTTO, grabbed my attention. Here is a screenshot of the campaign:

Example of sexist advertising

The OTTO removal service ad campaign

The campaign promotes a furniture removal service – you hire OTTO and they pick up unwanted items from your home. The images feature a plain and stereotypically ‘geeky’ looking woman called “Irmgard” whom the campaign portrays in a naïve and idiotic light.

The campaign outlines “Five things that our service cannot remove for you,” including: wives, cute animals, love letters, travel groups, and well-meaning advice on how to carry things. In the body copy of ‘Love letters’ – OTTO states that they cannot deliver love letters to Irmgard – implying mockingly, that regardless of how much she may want one, OTTO can only remove unwanted items. On ‘well-meaning advice’ – OTTO states that their employees do not need advice on how to carry old couches from brain-dead Irmgard—they got skills.

This blatantly sexist ad campaign compares women to objects that, unfortunately for the customer, cannot be disposed of like unwanted possessions. Likening women to trash is not only highly insulting but promotes harmful perceptions; that women are worthless; while playing on the lazy stereotype that after a woman has succeeded in conning a man into marrying her, the woman who was once desirable becomes an irritation and a nag as the years pass. Even on a surface level, the campaign exploits gender stereotypes and relies on cheap humour to generate sales.

The portrayal of Irmgard promotes the idea that women are better suited as props in a narrative for product marketing, than to be shown as whole persons. Given the fact that OTTO sells lots of women’s clothing, this is not just insulting but incredibly foolish on their part.

 

Example of sexist advertising

The copy reads: “Our motto: If it talks, we will not remove it [from your home]”

Taking a stand

I get it; companies believe that sex(ism) sells. But it really shouldn’t. That’s why I decided to take action.

Germany’s advertising regulatory body Deutscher Werberat prohibits gender discrimination in advertising. The public can file complaints about ads, which Deutscher Werberat then reviews and decide whether to take action.  I did not contact Facebook to try to get the ad removed because in my experience they don’t bother to follow up on complaints about sexism. I therefore sent Deutscher Werberat the two screenshots above to highlight the sexist nature of OTTO’s campaign, with particular focus on the offensive ‘wives’ element. I explained:

“OTTO relies on harmful and idiotic clichés [in their ad campaign]. The removal service is for removing unwanted objects. The company is likening married women to trash. Sexist advertising is harmful for all people—it is just unnecessary. There are thousands of other ideas that can be used for advertising that do not disparage people based on their gender.”

One week later, I received a letter from Deutscher Werberat. It stated that they had contacted OTTO, and OTTO had then told them that they would no longer broadcast the ad going forward.

Response letter from German advertising regulator, Deutscher Werberat

The letter in response to my complaint

Following up is crucial

After receiving the letter, I checked Facebook and saw that the ad was still up. I waited a few days and then contacted Deutscher Werberat to ask why the ad was still online. The employee I spoke to was just as confused as I, as to why the ad had not been taken down and promised to get in touch with OTTO again. I was promised a follow-up call from Deutscher Werberat, but I never received one.

A few days after the call, I saw that the ‘wives’ image had been removed from Facebook. The rest of the campaign is still online as of the time of this writing.

Example of a sexist advertising campaign

The ad campaign after OTTO removed the “wives” image

Sexism is still not taken seriously

Why did the regulatory body for commercial advertising request that OTTO remove the ‘wives’ image but allow them to continue promoting the other components of the campaign? The whole thing is clearly sexist—the storyline is built on the delusions of Irmgard.

The reason for the limited scope of Deutscher Werberat’s intervention became obvious. When I spoke to one of their employees, I asked whether Deutscher Werberat was committed to dismantling sexism on a structural level or only proceeding on a case-by-case basis.

Sadly, although the employee said they pledge to do both, the rest of her response made it clear they only really deal with sexism on an individual case basis. The employee even said that the ‘wives’ image was not “necessarily sexist per se but discriminatory against married women as a group of persons.” This distinction is so absurd that it boggles my mind. Deutscher Werberat acknowledges that the ad relies on gender stereotypes but simultaneously denies that this constitutes sexism – although that is the very definition of sexism.

Unless sexism is taken seriously, it will continue to taint commercial advertising. Case in point: Deutscher Werberat failed to challenge the sexism of OTTO on a company level and since my complaint, at least one other sexist ad has been posted on their Facebook page. A video from early October jokes about how women are crazy hoarders who carry an infinite array of items in their handbags at all times. Glad to hear the oldest stereotype in the galaxy is still being used to drive sales.

The road ahead: rocky but absolutely necessary

What I’ve learnt from this incident: keep pushing. My next step is to contact Deutscher Werberat again to push for the removal of the whole Irmgard campaign instead of just one image. I will continue to file complaints about other sexist ads by OTTO in an effort to get Deutscher Werberat to abandon the case-by-case approach and take sexism seriously as a structural issue.

Depending on how much energy I decide to invest in this particular issue I may try to mobilise other people to collectively pressure OTTO to stop broadcasting sexist ads and appeal to supervisory bodies such as Deutscher Werberat to take sexism seriously instead of shying away from the term.

Ceaseless advocacy is the only way to bring about the end of gender-based discrimination.

Advertisements

Ched Evans retrial: A failure for the victim and all rape victims

I have felt anger many times in my life but this weekend as I read the headline that Ched Evans had been cleared of rape, I felt an overwhelming sense of rage. The kind of rage that makes you want to walk into the middle of the road, stop the traffic, lie down on the ground and scream.

Ched Evans and girlfriend at court

Image source: The Daily Mail

And keep screaming until the whole world is listening to you. Rage dances through my veins, pulsating and getting stronger as more news comes in throughout the week. The rage I feel curses throughout my body.  I can’t stop questioning how and why this is happening. Nothing makes sense and it all feels so unfair.

Ched Evans is a Welsh footballer who was 22 when he was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman who was too intoxicated to consent to having sex. Evans was later found guilty of the crime in 2012 and sentenced to five years in prison. He served two years of his sentence before being released, vowing that he was going to clear his name after maintaining his innocence and that is exactly what he has just done. After winning the right to a retrial, on Friday, Ched Evans was found not guilty of rape.

Looking at images from the CCTV footage released after the original trial, of a girl who was so drunk she could barely stand, being lured away into a car by a predatory man – footballer and friend to Evans, Clayton McDonald – there was no doubt that this girl could not have consented to sex just moments later. You can read more about the case and come to your own conclusions but really, our beliefs about Ched Evans’s guilt is of no real importance because the jury has decided that he is not.

I am angry that someone who I believed committed rape has been let off and I feel sickened every time I hear Evans speak about wanting to ‘educate’ other young players so they don’t end up in his unfortunate position. There’s something similar about his actions to the post-trial events of the Brock Turner case. Turner sexually assaulted a girl on a university campus earlier this year. Somehow, these athletes who have committed some of the most abhorrent crimes aim to repent by saving other poor boys from meeting a similar fate, citing the perils of alcohol consumption.

I am not sure most young men need advice from convicted, or controversially cleared rapists, to know that if a girl is unconscious, it is probably best not to have sex with her.

Most young men would not be interested in having sex with a lifeless body, I am not sure that is the kind of passion they are looking for.

Back in 2012, media narrative painted the claimant as a pathological liar, trying to thwart the promising career of an idolised footballer. People who hadn’t really looked into the case or listened to the details didn’t understand what the fuss was about – the girl was just drunk wasn’t she? It wasn’t really rape though, was it? Back in 2011 when the offence was committed, the law was very clear and it remains so today. If a person is too intoxicated to consent, by having sex with them, you are committing rape.

Every part of the Ched Evans case made me angry, but this anger had a short reprieve when a jury found him guilty. I thought some kind of justice had been served. And when he was released from prison, there was quiet satisfaction in seeing his football career suffer, after Sheffield United fans called for his contract not to be renewed and an 170,000-signature strong petition was published supporting this notion.

Pressure was mounted on the club by high profile individuals such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who asked for her name to be removed from a stand at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium if Evans was given a new contract.

But perhaps public opinion had changed since then.

There are two injustices surrounding the clearance of Evans at his retrial. One: Ched Evans has gotten away with a crime a jury found him guilty of five years ago. Two: our justice system has failed the victim of a hideous crime by allowing Ched Evans’s defence team to put forward evidence which was based on the victim’s sexual behaviour – something which legislation imposed severe restrictions on in 1999, due to the ridiculous assumption that if a woman has previously had sex with numerous partners, a jury would find her less credible as a rape victim.

For seventeen years this legislation has been in place and throughout this time we have been encouraged relentlessly by police campaigns to report rape. Even though rape convictions remain horribly low, we live in the hope that legal proceedings have evolved beyond courtroom batterings from defence solicitors, accusing claimants of having too many sexual partners, too many sexual encounters and no self respect in a bid to undermine their story. We have been led to believe that this simply does not happen anymore – it cannot happen anymore because of this legislation.

The retrial of Ched Evans shows that this legislation isn’t as far reaching as we would like to believe and that in fact, the smearing, undemocratic courtroom tactics are a lot closer to home than that of developing countries where women are robbed of human rights and opressed as second class citizens. In fact, many applications made by the defence in rape cases to use previous sexual history as evidence, are successful. There are exemptions to the use of this evidence but according to the Judge hearing the retrial of Evans, this case did in fact warrant the exposure of this private information to the jury.

Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act states that ‘If the issue is one of consent, the behaviour to which they relate is either alleged to have taken place at or about the same time as the alleged offence or is so similar to the complainant’s behaviour at that time that it cannot reasonably be explained as coincidence,’… then it would be acceptable to use the claimant’s sexual behaviour as evidence in a trial.

Ched Evans mugshot

Image source: The Mirror

The new witnesses, who were key to proving the innocence of Evans, were used by the defence to show that the victim’s behaviour was inconsistent with her accusation towards Evans. One of the witnesses stated that she’d had sex with him a fortnight after the night she had reported Evans to the police, and the other said she had used language during sex with him which was very similar to the language she used when having sex with Evans, according to Ched himself. These key witnesses’ two testimonials are the reason Ched Evans was found not guilty.

I am struggling to understand why this case was any different to any other rape trial. Why was this evidence so compelling? Two witnesses came forward after being offered a £50,000 reward by a hefty, powerful defence legal team and told some stories about the behaviour of the victim. Because she had sex two weeks after being raped, does this suggest she wasn’t raped? I don’t think so. It is impossible to homogenise the experience of all rape victims and expect them to display the same behaviour as each other, weeks after an assault.

Many victims are in denial for weeks, months, or years after their attack. Everyday life continues, and not everyone breaks down and cannot function.

I was raped on a Saturday night at a friend’s house, and got picked up by my Dad on the following Sunday morning and talked to him about what a great night I’d had. I then went for Sunday lunch with my Grandma and chatted freely about school and my friends. I went to bed on Sunday questioning what had really happened on Saturday and struggled to sleep, but on Monday I went to school. I can assure you that I was raped. My ‘behaviour’ doesn’t take away the truth of what happened on that night.

When something awful happens that is too traumatic for you to understand, sometimes it is easier to carry on as normal. Sometimes, it is not even a conscious decision.

As for questioning the victim for hours about her sexual preferences, how many partners she’d had, what sexual positions she favoured, and how she liked to have sex, I’m at a loss on how to even rationalise the Judge’s decision to allow this line of questioning to continue. Because it is completely irrelevant. In any rape case it is irrelevant.

Every case of sexual assault is different. Rape can happen between a husband and a wife; it can happen between two strangers, or friends; it can happen between a parent and a child. Every outcome and consequence of rape is different, but what remains the same is the pain that every victim feels. Whether you were conscious or unconscious when you were being raped, the feeling of gut-wrenching sadness and desperation will still live deep in your soul.

We don’t need to compare the atrocities of different rape cases to each other. Each case is awful in its own right.

In the same way, the criminal justice system should not be able to determine whether one case of rape should be treated differently to another when considering Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act.

There should be no circumstances when a woman’s previous sexual history should be used against her by the defence. If this is allowed to happen, the myth that some rapes are more serious than others, will continue. If Ched Evans wasn’t a famous footballer who had a girlfriend with a multi-millionaire father who funded a very expensive legal appeal to clear his name, he would still be guilty of rape.

Justice has not been served in this case and unfortunately will have a great impact on the likeliness of women reporting serious sexual assault committed against them. Rape is humiliating enough without having to endure someone questioning your sexual history in a courtroom full of people, doubting your integrity.

I have always believed that if I was raped now, I would most certainly report it to the police. What has just happened in our country within a supposedly first-class criminal justice system, has made me reexamine whether I really would. I have experienced the painful consequences of rape, I am not sure if I could withstand more trauma in a courtroom. This is not the way it should be in twenty first century Britain.

‘This is an outrage!’ – righteous indignation post Brexit

by Joshua Piercey

Brexit

Image source: bbc.com

Post Brexit, outrage is everywhere. Righteous indignation covers the front pages, the columns, my Facebook feed.

It’s all equally unhelpful. As a somewhat resigned Remain voter I’ve been disappointed by the outrage from other Remainers. Often it’s articulate, occasionally it’s informed. It’s almost uniformly redundant, because the meaning of outrage has been so diluted by resentment and incoherent fury.

I AM RIGHT SO YOU ARE WRONG

In its base form ‘outrage’ simply means a strong anger or indignation, but in the strange unwritten gestalt that English words have, a moral connection is implicit. Outrage is righteous indignation. Without a moral component it’s merely rage.

And as a moral component is implicit in outrage, so an empathic component is implicit in morality. To make a moral judgement, one must either empathise with the wronged, or refuse to empathise with the perpetrator. If an empathic act doesn’t occur, you never had the moral high-ground to start with.

Image source: castle2016.com for the FT

Image source: castle2016.com for the FT

Men’s Rights Activists are low hanging fruit here, but sometimes an easy target is the best way of getting a point across. The outrage that MRA’s often display over inequality or violence that men suffer is too often tinged with a lack of empathy that makes it ludicrous. How can men be expected to tolerate this treatment, they ask, all the while unable to fathom that the outrage they feel – the exact same sensation – might be the one felt by women in a similar situation for generations. Denigrating feminism while trying to defend a male agenda is equally absurd – it creates hypocrisy where none existed before.

The issue is that this outrage clouds the discourse. No one is arguing that men do not suffer, and that the problems they face are not genuine. Ignoring or diminishing those issues based on some hierarchy of suffering is redundant and dangerous – problems need to be solved, no matter who or how many they afflict. But the outrage that dominates the conversation from MRAs obscures legitimate concerns and undermines the cause.

WEANING YOURSELF OFF INDIGNATION 

Post-Brexit outrage is similarly obfuscating.

Blame, accusations – and, as we come to terms with the fallout, I-told-you-so’s – are satisfying but lack the required empathic exploration. The Government has failed us on both sides – refusing to truly condemn the rhetoric of xenophobes while failing to empathise with the disenfranchised who dominated the vote.

Without genuine consideration, the temptation that many ‘Facebook warriors’ have fallen prey to, is to combine the two groups. All this does is muddy the waters… and generate further outrage. It becomes harder to identify and condemn racists, for example, when other Leave voters find themselves unfairly labelled as such. Everything is cloudy, the real issues are hidden by ones we stirred up ourselves.

Image source: ibtimes.com

Image source: ibtimes.com

Outrage rails now against any change to the status quo, and so women and minorities need to be extra vigilant against the emotional hijacking it creates. Women learning, voting, driving: all these once met with automatic resentment masquerading as moral indignation.

Xenophobic rhetoric positions immigrants as morally at fault – they steal jobs, resources, the place in a doctor’s waiting line.

Women have a greater right to moral fury than anyone. I’ll couch this as my personal opinion, though I’ll respect you less if you disagree. Women are most oppressed, suffer the most. Take a beleaguered minority and stick the word “female” in front if you want to compound their difficulties. Yet even feminism has had its cause hampered by the incoherent form of outrage, the kind that leads to shaming, pop-targeting of man-spreading, screaming Daily Mail headlines. More straw for the man-hating, Dworkin-esque strawman. None of this advances the true cause, rather it blunts the impact of real outrage – the genuine righteous anger we need, that fuels us to combat bigotry, violence and inequality.

The kind of outrage that is fed to us now is inherently conservative, anti-progressive. What I’ve learned from Brexit is how emotionally satisfying it is, and therefore how treacherous. If you consider yourself a feminist – or any kind of liberal – you should think twice about letting it suck you in. Your anger is a gift. Respect its use.

‘Evolutionary speaking’

by Emilia Passaro

Image source: Jarek Puczel at berlinartparasites

Image source: Jarek Puczel at berlinartparasites

As with all of my passionate opinions, I discovered this one through a conversation in a pub. I was talking to a work mate about his (in my opinion) failing relationship: “You don’t get it” he said, “Men are just not meant to settle down. It’s against our nature to be monogamous. It’s an evolutionary fact!”

Now, I do not profess to be an expert in any field, in fact, I know very little about anything but, my degree is rooted in biology and my dissertation was centred on evolution.

Consequently, while he was explaining this to me I almost believed him. For a second it made sense. As with many other animals the male of the species needs to be visually and physically impressive enough to attract the attention of the females.

Their aim is to impregnate as many as possible in order to pass their genetic code onto as many offspring as possible. Conversely, the females aim to seek out one male who will protect and provide for her and their offspring. I agreed. But then, a second passed.

Darwin's Tree of Life; a metaphor used to describe the relationships between organisms, both living and extinct. Image source: www.fossilmuseum.net

Darwin’s Tree of Life; a metaphor used to describe the relationships between organisms, both living and extinct. Image source: http://www.fossilmuseum.net

After that I realised how embarrassing this idea is. I have to believe that we as a species have evolved past that. Yes, it may have been relevant in the past when we were evolving our culture and society but surely not anymore.

There are many things we have done in our evolutionary path to the present day that we have discarded simply because they are no longer appropriate. The gender roles that defined these sexual choices are slowly resetting themselves. We have plainly moved on. Humans are no better than any other organism on this beautiful planet but we certainly have evolved differently.

Don’t get me wrong, I accept evolution wholeheartedly, it has bestowed upon us such amazing gifts not least our big, beautiful brains. With this astounding, complex organ I believe that we are able to overcome our base instincts if we so choose.

If we decide we want to be in a monogamous relationship then surely we can be, humans have definitely performed greater feats. We walked on the moon, we conquered Everest, we even squeezed the juice from an orange to create the drink of the Gods.

In all of these scenarios we used our brains to overcome the voices in our heads which tell us to stop, which say “hold on, maybe we’ve gone too far this time”. We still did it though, through sheer want of will.

So I refuse to demean and patronise my male counterparts (even if some choose to do so themselves) by perpetuating the idea that they are unable to or find it almost impossible to maintain a monogamous relationship.

Although, if someone decides that they much prefer the polyamorous lifestyle and wish to practice with other like minded people; go for it! You do you. But please, don’t use this “evolutionarily speaking” defence to run around on your partner and then blame it on ‘innate qualities’ because you are not being a ‘bloke’, you’re being a bad person.

In my eyes this entire argument is an obvious patriarchal gas lighting tactic to persuade ourselves that it is OK for approximately half of the population to do as they wish even if it directly and negatively impacts the other half.

That may seem like an outrageous and militant statement and so I will qualify it with the idea that many of us are oblivious and blissful in our ignorance. I have had discussions on this topic many times, which is not surprising. What is surprising is that I have often been debating with other women who have themselves been cheated on or strung along for months. I hate the idea that there are people who feel blameless for cheating on their partners because ‘they just couldn’t help it’. What an awful cop-out.

In short, what I am trying to say is that we are capable of making our own decisions in all aspects of our lives, including our love and sex lives, and we need to step up to that ability.

There is no other creature on this planet who has created science, art, literature, peanut butter, music etc. We are conscious of ourselves and others, we feel empathy and sympathy, we act altruistically for the benefit of others. We should never seek to blame our biology for things that we can choose and should change.

Nevertheless, these thoughts are solely my own. This is my opinion, as you can see there are no citations or references. I have absolutely no empirical evidence from published members of the scientific community to back me up. Hopefully, this will spark an interesting conversation. I am always interested to hear from people who disagree with me and even more interested in those who agree. Let’s discuss…

Image source: Tran Nguyen at berlinartparasites

Image source: Tran Nguyen at berlinartparasites