In November 2013 WECAMS (feminist organizations Chiennes de Garde from France, DonneinQuota, from Italy and OBJECT from the UK) met with the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA), which the network of advertising self-regulation bodies. Its purpose is to promote ‘best practices’ in advertising. In a meeting held at the European Parliament, and with strong support from MEPs Mary Honeyball (UK), Sylvie Guillaume (France) and Silvia Costa (Italy), we presented our positions to EASA and representatives of its member bodies.
We explained why sexual objectification and sexual stereotyping of women and girls constitutes discrimination, and emphasized that objective criteria exist to assess whether the content of an advert is discriminatory. We pointed out the inconsistencies in ads being judged as sexist and banned in one European country but not others. We called for tighter guidelines to regulate advertising, in line with European Parliament resolutions on ending discrimination and in consultation with women’s rights organizations across Europe. We argued that standard-setting would be positive for the advertising agencies themselves; people who work in the industry have told us of the pressure from corporate clients to develop sexually objectifying advertising campaigns, and they would no longer be forced to participate in this.
WECAMS was established to campaign for responsible advertising, highlighting the industry’s massive influence in shaping society’s ideas of what is normal, acceptable and desirable. Research shows that exposure to images that sexually objectify or stereotype women can damage women and girls’ self-esteem and mental health, limit and shape their aspirations, and foster sexist attitudes and behaviours among men and boys. Such images are currently commonplace in advertising.
Yet despite countless studies that demonstrate the discriminatory nature and harmful effects of such advertising, many advertising regulatory bodies still consider sexism an issue of ‘taste and decency’, rather than one of discrimination. Complaints against sexist portrayals of women and girls in adverts are upheld only if they are likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’, and a great deal of sexist advertising is judged inoffensive. For example, if demeaning portrayals of women are placed in men’s magazines, they are likely to be deemed ‘humorous’ and unlikely to cause offence to the target audience. And the content is only judged according to ‘prevailing social standards’ – so if discrimination against women is commonplace, sexist advertising won’t stand out as tasteless or indecent.
As a result of our meeting, EASA has promised to consider how it could use its standard-setting role to help end sexism in advertising. We look forward to further collaboration and concrete steps towards change.