Close-Up: Live Issue - Is advertising fundamentally sexist?

Does adland rely on stereotypical and sexist approaches to sell goods and services, Noel Bussey asks.

Last week, following the publication of a report by the Turkish socialist MP Gulsun Bilgehan, the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe called for a halt to what it described as "sexist advertising".

The report accuses adland of only depicting women as "perfect wife, mother or object of desire" while claiming that "female nudity and sexuality have become the advertisers' favourite lure".

It cites the fashion industry as a major culprit, making mention of a recent ad for Dolce & Gabbana, showing a group of men holding down a woman "in a position that suggested rape was intended".

But the response from the UK ad industry has been to dismiss the report, resoundingly saying that it is "wrong", "biased", "at least 15 years out of date" and "misses the point", because ads are not about "isms"; they merely use stereotypes as a means of conveying a message.

Debbie Klein, the chief executive of WCRS, says: "As agencies, we spend our time trying to talk to people. Not men or women. We try not to make distinctions. There is very little sexist advertising now."

Adrian Holmes, the executive creative director of Young & Rubicam EMEA, adds: "The fashion industry is a stereotype, and is bound to show people as sexual beings."

Despite this, there have been cases where ads have been overtly sexist, such as easyJet's "weapons of mass distraction" poster or the ad for Opium perfume which depicted a naked Sophie Dahl.

John Beyer, the director of Mediawatch-UK, cites the easyJet ad when he says: "Sexism has always been there. Women are being trivialised and sexual violence is being glamorised."

He also agrees with one of the report's main conclusions: that there is a lack of adequate laws and regulations surrounding this issue.

However, Claire Forbes, the director of communications for the Advertising Standards Authority, says: "We had more than 20,000 complaints last year, which suggests a robust regulation system with the confidence of the public, but there are just not that many complaints in this area."

The report has a very European slant and focuses much more on the Continent, where regulation is less stringent than in the UK.

Holmes says: "Regulation in the UK is much stronger, so, in Europe, you might find more bare flesh. France and Germany have been historically famous for this, but this is beginning to change."

A study by Ipsos, a French polling institute, showed that 46 per cent of French people said they were "shocked by the way women were presented in advertising".

Another charge UK adland levels at the report is that it fails to address the fact that sexism towards men is becoming more prevalent.

A spokeswoman for the ASA says the number of complaints about ads being sexist towards men has increased in the past two years.

Sarah Gold, the managing partner of CHI & Partners, says: "Men are equally shown in apparent sexist roles as a father, a husband or a sex object. This is in part because, regardless of gender, we perform many roles in life. Many people are acting as a father, a wife or a sex object when making a brand choice."

Gerry Moira, the chairman and director of creativity at Euro RSCG, adds: "The best ads come when you're not endorsing any type of stereotype. That is what we should be aiming for, but with small budgets and short timespans, stereotypes are bound to appear."

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INDUSTRY WATCHDOG - Claire Forbes, director of communications, Advertising Standards Authority

"This area is very low on our listed complaints. I would say we get about 200 to 300 a year out of more than around 20,000 overall.

"The ASA believes that this report is fundamentally flawed. Not only does it fail to take things such as the watershed and media into account, but it also talks in derogatory tones about women who are in the home or are mothers. This isn't sexist to the thousands of women who are in those situations.

"The report is also rather European-focused, and doesn't take into account different nations."

CAMPAIGNER - John Beyer, director, Mediawatch-UK

"There is no question that the advertising industry uses sex to sell, and that women are feeling commoditised and that their modesty is being challenged.

"Some advertising is very good, but it seems that most of the sexist ads seem to be promoting products that aren't very good, so they need to have some other type of hook.

"The real problem is that no matter how much women complain, nobody is taking notice.

"The main problem with self-regulation is that a lot of companies don't care about the code, so there are agencies that are exploiting the system; and they seem to get away with even more explicit imagery."

CREATIVE - Gerry Moira, chairman and director of creativity, Euro RSCG

"The problem is that it's not about sexism, it's about stereotypes. The industry only has 30 seconds to get its messages across, so we have to use recognisable stereotypes, such as a housewife, a dumb husband or a stroppy teenager.

"It's not our job to create interesting, detailed characters. Hollywood struggles to do this in 90 minutes, let alone 30 seconds.

"Also, in recent times, these stereotypes are being used much more against men. Men are increasingly being depicted as the incompetent boyfriend or husband, while the woman is in a position of power.

"If there was a male movement, they would have just as much to complain about as anyone else."

AGENCY MD - Sarah Gold, managing partner, CHI & Partners

"It's wrong to say ads are sexist towards women. Many portray them as friends, colleagues or successful business people.

"Bad advertising can reduce any audience to obvious stereotypes - from yummy mummies to power-broking businessmen - but this is not endemic of an attitude from within the industry. Advertising strives to differentiate its output. It strives to avoid obvious representations of audiences.

"So, in many more advertising-literate markets, social stereotypes of the sort referred to are actually being reversed in advertising. Men are fronting FMCG brands such as Flash, and women are fronting beer brands such as Boddingtons."