The World: Fighting Swedish sexism through advertising

Are tougher regulations necessary for an industry that is pulling out all the stops to promote equality, Mark Johnson asks.

Think of Sweden and you will no doubt have an image of one of the most progressive, liberal nations in Europe, with generous maternity and paternity leave and excellent day care for children with working parents.

But the Swedish government seems to think the country is not progressive enough. The object of its current vitriol is sexism, and the governing centre-left Social Democratic Party is planning to address the problem through tougher regulations on advertising.

If the proposed ban comes into force, it would cover advertising deemed to be sexist, demeaning to women or strengthening male power structures, and penalties could include a total ban or fines.

Although currently only at the proposal stage, with support for the proposal coming from the Greens and the ex-communist Left Party, the government could introduce the new legislation as early as the end of the summer.

For that to happen, it must survive debates in two parliaments and arguments that it would infringe the 1809 constitutional law on freedom of speech and the free press.

Legislation should hardly seem necessary in a country renowned for the high value it has traditionally placed upon equality between the sexes.

Filip Nilsson, the creative director at the Swedish creative agency Forsman & Bodenfors, believes that, although sexism does remain an issue in Sweden, legislation is the wrong path to take to change attitudes and behaviour.

"Driving opinion is a more efficient and relevant tool," he argues.

Forsman & Bodenfors was the agency behind the award-winning government-backed campaign last year that used billboard and newspaper ads to urge the public to protest against sexism and acts that were perceived as attempts to sexualise under-age girls.

The pro bono campaign, named "flicka" (Swedish for "girl"), saw the agency write to media owners asking them to explain why they had behaved in a particular way that was deemed to be sexist, demeaning to women or aimed at sexualising under-age girls. In one case, a girls' magazine was targeted for including cut-out postcards in its Valentine's Day issue so that girls could send their boyfriend a choice of messages that included the option: "I'd like to have a threesome with you and a friend."

The campaign published the letters alongside the name and telephone number of the magazine editor on billboards and asked the public to contact the named person and demand an explanation. Five weeks later, the replies from the media owner were printed on the same billboards.

In total, 12 incidents were targeted and used in the campaign, which Nilsson believes has sent a powerful message to the whole of Swedish society.

He believes this type of approach will tackle the issue most effectively, and that a crackdown on advertising would achieve far less.

Nilsson says: "The debate about sexism in society - not just in advertising - is so intense in Sweden that most sexist advertising is not even published. There is a lot of self-censorship. Compare Sweden to most of the rest of Europe and Sweden is less sexist."

Bjorn Larsson, the chairman and chief executive of Lowe Nordic/Brindfors, highlights a key concern that has been under close examination in the public debate and argues that a change in the law could damage fundamental constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and the press. And, while he cites evidence to demonstrate the extent of sexism in Sweden, such as the fact that only 2 per cent of Sweden's almost 300 publicly listed companies have female chief executives, he says: "The issue is how to deal with it (sexual discrimination) - through self-regulation, or the law? The former is too soft and the latter too complex."

The complexity of implementing a law on sexism in advertising is a concern shared by Frank Hollingworth, the creative director of the agency King.

He argues that a definition of sexism itself would be problematic.

"Sexism is one thing for me, and something quite different for someone else," Hollingworth says.

"People, both in the advertising industry and the public, think it's a good idea not to make sexist advertising. But ad industry executives are wondering how they will do it."

Despite the confusion, the prevailing feeling is that self-regulation would mean the law would have a minimal impact on normal advertising practice, given the fact that ERK (a media and advertising industry-founded ethical body) has dealt with issues of sexism effectively for many years.

However, Anna Serner, the managing director of The Advertising Association of Sweden, warns that implementing legislation may prove counter-productive.

The AAS, Serner says, has been promoting equal rights in schools educating young people against sexist behaviour and "providing food for thought, and for debate" through information campaigns in recent years. She warns: "As soon as legislation comes into force, there will be no debate."

Serner fears the government, faced with a resurgent opposition, and with a general election due in the autumn, is guilty of short-term thinking in a bid to win votes.

"This new law would be a way for legislators to show they want to work against sexism, and the only noticeable way is to use legislation in some form. But they know they can't legislate against sexist treatment or behaviour in the home, the family, and so on. So it won't do anything to tackle the problem."

If the legislation goes through, it will impact on an industry that believes it is doing everything it can to promote sexual equality, and that is eager not to be made the scapegoat for one of society's ills.


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