Editorial: Taking on sexist ads via new laws is bound to fail

Any government that seeks to control advertising through legislation enters a minefield. Not that this ever seems to stop Sweden taking the risk.

Having banned TV ads from targeting children for the past 15 years, its politicians are turning their attention to sexist advertising. If they get their way, any ad judged demeaning to women or strengthening to male power will be banned and its perpetrators fined (World Analysis, page 21).

Many words have already been written in explanation of the seeming contradictions that lie at the heart of Swedish society. Why, it is asked, does such a liberal country subject itself to some of the world's most Draconian restrictions on advertising? How does a nation famous for its enlightened attitude to sex become prudish when it comes to sex in ads?

These questions defy easy answers. More certain is that any bid to use the law to banish sexism from advertising is doomed to fail. And a good thing too. This is not to say that advertising that diminishes the dignity of men or women should be tolerated. The problem is that the law is too much of a blunt instrument ever to be successful against it. Just as banning the promotion of unhealthy food is unworkable because there is no consensus on what distinguishes "good" food from "bad", so also is the outlawing of sexist ads.

What constitutes sexism is, almost inevitably, a subjective judgment.

Blatant examples aside, there will always be a large amount of advertising that some consumers will see as sexist, others merely as saucy. What is more, it is unlikely any legislation can be drafted in such a way that it can take into account where the advertising appears. It is one thing for a catch-all media such as outdoor to be displaying sexist images, quite another for them to appear in a lads' mag.

Interestingly, there is little overtly sexist advertising in Sweden because the ad industry chooses not to produce it. Why? Because Swedish agencies already know advertising that is out of step with public opinions will not work. It is a lesson idealistic politicians closer to home might bear in mind before trying to fight sexism via the statute book.