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.

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