Buy a Burger, Buy Sex: South African Media Representations of Women

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 - 13:15
Sexualised advertising reinforces negative stereotypes about women, including portraying women as sex objects. It suggests certain gender roles for women and girls and emphasises the stereotype of women being ‘more about looks than brains’. Negative stereotypes perpetuated by sexualised advertising have the potential to shape boys’ attitudes towards women and girls. These attitudes are leading to an increase in gender-based violence in the country


Thank-you. The large amount of sexist and mis-leading advertising currently being shown on television which is derogative and degrading towards men and portrays women as being more intelligent and "worth it" is absolutely evil; extremely arrogant and is the root cause of many of the problems we are all now encountering in modern society. Advertisers are unwittingly(?) doing an incalculable amount of damage to the younger generations of today by wrongly portraying men as being less intelligent than, or easily-manipulated by women, as a means of selling a product or service, because this incorrect portrayal of men and women is teaching the wrong spiritual; role-model and moral standards to the young generations of today. Young boys are being taught that girls are more intelligent and more "in control" than boys are, and girls are being taught that everyone should be running around after them and worshipping them instead of God, because television advertising is portraying girls/women as being "sex-goddesses" to be worshipped by boys/men and is constantly telling women that "they're worth it" and that men are worthless. This degradation of the Spiritual strength and masculinity of men is the root-cause of many of the social problems that both men and women are currently facing in modern society, such as the increasing number of men suffering from depression; committing suicide or turning to homosexuality and the increasing number of women taking up and becoming addicted to smoking, drinking and other stress relieving drugs, in order to try to cope with modern day life. Because of this constant degradation of the man's status as being the strong Spiritual leader (which does not mean beating your wife, or anyone else for that matter), it is becoming increasingly more difficult to be a real man in modern society. Consequently many men find that they can't fulfill what they feel to be, and God says is, their role in society. Because of this false propaganda and laws that take away and give custody of men's children to women, men become depressed, some committing suicide and others try to turn to doing the role of women in society and become what God condemns as an abomination to Him - homosexuals. On the other side of the same coin we have women trying to take over and fulfill the man's role in society, which women are not spiritually equipped to do because they are affected more easily than men by emotions and mood-swings caused by the greater amount of hormones in their blood-stream controlling the various cycles of the female body, which enables Satan to manipulate them and their thoughts more easily than he can do with a man. That is part of why Eve (woman) gave in to the serpent (Satan) and was then commanded by God to allow Adam (man) to rule over her (woman) and thereby help to prevent Satan from succeeding in having his will done on Earth, instead of God's Will being done. Because of the role-reversal, most women who are in positions of authority suffer from excessive stress and turn to smoking, drink or other drugs to cope, and consequently enter the downward spiral of drug dependency and depression, ultimately leading to their own self-destruction. For a full explanation of this, please study "The Way home or face The Fire".
Money c killing our sister
Yes, it's sad, it's bad, it's out there and it's not stopping. What do we do? I would like to commend the women and men who have stood up against this stereotype. At least they are doing something and we need to support them and other instiutions that stand up against such abuse noting also the need to resocialise our children and most of all, ourselves as adults.
I agree fully with the article women have been perceived as sexual objects by the media. Like when they make an advertisement let say about a car or a pair of sunglasses one will often see a half naked women posing and one will ask himself or herself about the commection and what is it that they are trying to put across the minds of the audience.
It is unfortunate that we live in a capitalist system and money run the show. Women subject trhemselves to harm by argreeing to pose nude for example.
Unfortunately women put themselve in that position all in the name of money. But undoubtedly, it is a cycle..a client has a product, gives it an AD agency, Ad agenct genuises develop a concept that includes women, not forgeting that "sex sells" globally, the client loves it, a production company is chosen to produce the Ad, Casting Agencies choose the "required women" for the Ad and the rest is history. With a culture that is so self-sustained, who are we to judge? We buy these products, along with the ideologies sold to us and we identify with these products. Who are we then to blame. The desperate men and women in the adverts? the production co's? the advertising "creatives"? the person incharge of the product to be advertised? the company that owns "him" or her? if you will, or do we blame the product????? Society is to blame. clear cut and simple. NOLINDO*
Yes u have spoken the truth that there are woman who subject themselves to being eye candy. Woman empowerment is needed to build their self esteem that they don’t need to sell their bodies or strip to be noticed. Educating a girl child early about who she is and letting her know what she is worth will help in building her values and taking a lead role in the society. They won’t let anybody especially man walk all over them, they will refuse to be anybody’s eye candy.
So what are we going to do about it? We all agree its not right but then what? Or so what? Why dont we take a stand and do something about it?
At the risk of sounding like I am indulging in a 'blame the victim' form of deflection, which is not the case, I just want to highlight one very crucial aspect of the woman objectification and commodification phenomenon, namely, the role of the woman in that objectification and commodification. The Teazers' ad for an example, has a woman character at the centre of it. Another example, women who get sexually harrased and even sexually assaulted by sex predators in the workplace are victims of a precedent set by their fellow women who find it ecceptable to 'sleep their way to the top'. In a nutshell, whatever amount of education we direct at men in a bid to change stereotypes and to potect innocent women from sexual predatory, objectification, commodification, etc. must equally be directed at women themselves. Let's face it, not all women who are part of the equation in the objectification and commodification phenomena are innocent victims. Women agents are at the centre of this scourge. Not all women are like Sara Baartman who was a clear victim of a patriarchal and white supremacist society. Women themselves must speak out against women who make it 'cool'for men to think of them as 'eye candy' in the same way that men must speak out against this disgusting mentality among men.Now you can go ahead and shoot me for saying the above...
The issue of woman exploitation has somehow been tolarated by our society and I don't understand why have we lost our moral values as Africans? Advertisers are distroying South African woman's dignity by treating us like sexual objects or a thing used to attract buyers. Currently there is an advert from KFC of Ice cream crushers and I do not understand how a womans breast are in that mix.
When one considers the advertising industry, the consistent use of sexualised images of women is a very obvious phenomenon. It is not uncommon to see highly sexualised images of women advertising anything from cars, clothing and mobile phones, to furniture, food and a whole host of other products and services that somehow ‘benefit’ from an association – no matter how mismatched – with a ‘sexy’ woman. Such images enjoy high currency, which means that their negative effects on women are considered less important than the voyeuristic appeal a scantily dressed or naked woman lends to a product.

This paper briefly discusses how some representations of women in the South African advertising media conform to and perpetuate dominant gender and sexuality discourses, which objectify women and diminish their dignity. It is argued that the use of women’s bodies as ‘hooks’ to draw in consumers represents broader societal perceptions of women that allow and encourage the sexual objectification of women to be reduced to the near mundane; an ‘ordinary’ part of selling. Finally, the implications of the sexualised public space for women are discussed.

Trends and recent interventions

The advertising industry’s reliance on objectification of women and sexually suggestive messages is a worldwide phenomenon. Researchers like LaTour & Henthorne, as well as many others, have found that the use of sexual appeals in print advertising is often not well received by consumers, although these studies were not conducted in South Africa and they do note that such ads may produce potentially negative side effects, including sexual obsession and gratuitous sex.(2) Regardless of consumer considerations, sexualised images of women remain popular in South African advertising.

In South Africa, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been instrumental in tabling and banning offensive adverts. In 2009, ASA banned a Sexpo advertisement for objectifying women. The advertisement depicted a pair of a woman’s legs with underwear being naughtily removed. The ASA directorate ruled that the manner in which the woman was depicted “perpetuates the thought that she is an object of lust or desire, which reduces her to a sexual object.”(3) The organiser of the advertising campaigns, Silas Howarth, expressed surprise at the ruling and argued that the advertisement was “the most tasteful campaign yet.” He further argued that the advert was put together in light of a recent sex survey that revealed that the majority of South Africans were naughty at heart.(4) This reveals the advertiser’s failure to appreciate the problematic way in which his advert portrayed women. The claim that the advert was merely delivering a ‘naughty’ message to an already ‘naughty’ public cleverly ignores the idea that media images are in fact responsible for the creation and maintenance of markets for sexualised images. It reveals the ignorance and/or apathy of advertisers about the realities they shape. Sex may sell, but the media has the power to change this. Considering the indirect yet pervasive consequences of sexualised advertising on women, advertisers should stop taking the easy road, namely using women’s bodies and suggestive text to market products. Surely they are able to appeal to their consumers’ many other facets?

In 2008, fast food franchise Steers made a television TV commercial that visually compared highly sexualised images of women with sizzling hamburgers, presented as a ‘TV experiment’ about where men’s eyes would linger longest.(5) Some critics argued that this advert perpetuated the negative stereotype that women are only valued for their bodies. “You could argue that they [women] are portrayed as ‘meat for sale’, whether this was the intention of the advertisement or not, it still communicates this message.”(6) This particular advertisement provides a typical example of the use of sexualised images of women to market any product of choice, no matter how mismatched the union. Visual images can easily be manipulated to carry sexual connotations. For example, a 2004 DSTV billboard advertisement that portrayed two fried eggs in a bikini top was banned as offensive because it objectified and exploited the female body. It was argued that the billboard’s message implied that women’s breasts were consumable food.(7) Some adverts are problematic even when they do not contain sexualised images of women. Internationally, another fast food chain, Burger King, has repeatedly offended women with the sexual innuendos that characterise their advertisements.

The wide reach of advertising is a concern. Of course advertising is all about being seen and heard, so advertisers aim for the most strategic media and locations. If the creative minds behind the advertisements insist on demeaning women and portraying them in sexualised and derogatory roles, these attitudes are ‘sold’ with the main product. Such sexualisation of public space ensures that people who would not normally access pornography and related material now only need to walk on a street, turn on the TV or pick up a magazine to encounter images that pass for mild forms of pornography, or at least give graphic clues to its existence. It could be argued that the marketing of sexualised images of women is a way of skipping the bottlenecks to easily mainstream pornography.

In September 2009, infamous adult entertainment club Teazers sparked controversy with a billboard that depicted a highly sexualised image of a woman. The woman was pictured naked, lying on her back, her left arm partly covering her breasts and her knees bent.(8) The image elicited controversy and so did the accompanying text: “No need for gender testing!” This phrase openly ridiculed athlete, Caster Semenya, who had been at the centre of an internationally publicised controversy shortly before the Teazers advertisement was released. Semenya was humiliated when athletic authorities denied her international victory and subjected her to tests to prove her sex as female, known as ‘gender tests’.

Club owner, Lolly Jackson, recently deceased, denied any link to the athlete and insisted it was a mere coincidence. He then attacked the citizen who lodged a complaint with ASA against the advertisement and the ASA directorate, calling them “a bunch of idiots doing a worthless job.” Jackson expressed outrage at the complainant. "Some religious freak complained, only a religious fool would complain about that. Maybe the woman who complained should lose a bit of weight and her husband will then stop looking at the Teazers billboard, maybe she is fat and ugly. I don't give a s**t about her moral issues. I am sick and tired of bloody women who have nothing to do but look at Teazers billboards and complain. There are a lot more serious things that are happening in the country like corruption, crime and all that than complain about a billboard...It is a nice advert and the woman is a wonderful specimen of a lady. I wish there were a lot more in Sandton looking like her."(9)

In addition to Teazer’s highly inappropriate and cruel capitalisation of Semenya’s humiliation, the advertiser obviously failed to see beyond women’s physical attributes. Jackson and his advertising agency even reduced the complainant’s concerns to a matter of physical appearance by suggesting that her (assumed) probable physical ‘inadequacy’ was the real reason she was complaining. The idea that women cannot be concerned about anything more than physical appearance is a derogatory assumption, if not outrageous. The overall response was also deeply sexist and openly glorified the objectification of women, yet no more could have been expected of Jackson. After his murder in May, Errol Naidoo, Director of the Family Policy Institute, said that “the death of Lolly Jackson offers a respite from the sexual exploitation of women and girls in South Africa."(10)

In these and other cases, the focus fell on the acceptability or the offensiveness of the advertisements, yet what should really be problematised is the reality of the commoditisation of women’s sexuality. Indeed, female sexuality has become so commodified, so ‘normal’, that its presence in everyday marketing is hardly ever questioned, yet its consequences are tangible in women’s lives.

Why it matters

The media play an important role in how knowledge is produced and lived. They constitute the collective locus where prevailing discourses are created, inscribed, repeated and normalised.(11) It follows that if women are assigned problematic roles such as sex objects, room is actively created for a variety of negative perceptions to flourish. The need to interrogate what the media choose to portray as ‘normal’, therefore, draws on concerns that such portrayals can become acceptable ways of life. Challenging media portrayals “Is about the media’s power to create and sustain meanings; to persuade, endorse and reinforce.”(12) According to Jean Boddewyn, it is hard to control media portrayals of women because of the heterogeneous nature of advertisements and the flux of norms bearing on sex and decency in advertising.(13) The point remains, however, that media agencies need to take responsibility for the power they have and how they choose to yield it.

While it may not be possible to measure the full extent of the impact of gendered and sexualised images in the media, their implications remain real and far-reaching. Media representations are never immaterial: they have potentially real and material effects on the affected groups,(14) in this case women. One potential effect of the sexual objectification of women is that it supports sexual violence against women. It is the porno-capitalist logic inherent in the fact that sex sells that allows advertisers to normalise and glamorise what is essentially the sexual exploitation of women, for the benefit of men and the capitalist project. Much pornographic focus falls on male dominance and female submissiveness, a form of social oppression of women,(15) regardless of whether the woman in question ‘wants’ to be submissive or not. The concept renders women targets of potential sexual violence. “Pornography reduces women to sexual objects which leads to violence against them and also to a pervasive pattern of social disadvantage both privately and publicly,”(16) argues Owen Fiss in his acclaimed book, The Irony of Free Speech.

Sexualised images of women in advertising media contribute to the negative stereotype of women being ‘more looks than brains’ because their bodies are emphasised, but other personality aspects like emotions and critical thinking are conveniently ignored. Sexualised media images suggest certain gender roles for girls and women. Women are often portrayed as sex objects whose sole function is to satisfy public voyeuristic tendencies. This is an assault on women’s dignity. The media’s continuous and sadly, profitable, portrayal of women as single-minded sexualised beings strongly contradicts South Africa’s discursive and legislative promotion of gender equality through affirmative action and activism. It contradicts the South African Constitution which promotes non-sexism in the Equality Act.

These advertising trends also have serious effects on youth. A recent study by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that it takes only 15 minutes of exposure to video clips that objectify women to make female audience members feel more conscious and depressed about their bodies since they cannot meet the idealised ‘beauty’ marketed as normal.(17) It also revealed that teenage girls frequently exposed to such content are more likely to start viewing themselves as sex objects. Alarmingly, boys frequently exposed to such content are likely to shape their attitudes towards women and girls accordingly.(18)

Advertising that promotes the objectification of women is especially problematic in a country like South Africa, which boasts some of the highest rape statistics in the world. 54 926 cases were reported in 2006 alone. This figure does not include the estimated 450 000 rape cases that went unreported.(19) The lack of respect for women that leads to rampant violence against them is fed by media tendencies to portray women in sexually demeaning ways. There is a serious need to prioritise and regulate the interrogation of media messages, so that whatever power they have to create and sustain meanings is not wielded at the expense of women and girls. Sex sells, but many other things do, too.

Women, violence and control over advertising

The sexualised images that feature prominently in South African advertising media reinforce negative stereotypes. Accordingly, it is easy for many men to regard women’s bodies as products to be acquired or ‘things’ men are entitled access to. With rape statistics as high as South Africa’s, any portrayals that glamorise the sexual objectification of women should be discouraged with the resolve and seriousness they demand. Any efforts to counter rape need to take account of what the media are promoting as normal. The construction of women as sexual objects and society’s acceptance of such attitudes are key to the rampant sexual violence South African women experience every day.

Despite the existence of two research organisations, the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) and the South African Marketing Research Association (SAMRA), advertising agencies and their clients are still able to conceptualise, design and release advertisements that appeal to consumers based on the idea of sexualised, objectified women. Activists should lobby for a nationally recognised advertising research agenda that could serve to regulate the ideas of advertising companies and their clients. This objective may not be easy to execute, but women cannot wait for the capitalist endeavour to develop a social consciousness towards them. Capitalists still burn coal and other natural resources at an alarming rate, despite all the dooming evidence of global warming and its consequences. Why would advertisers and their clients suddenly be more considerate to women, sexism and sexual violence? This is an issue that South African women need to take charge of, or else little is going to change.

- Lwanga Mwilu is an external consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit ( The June edition of the Gender Issues Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see or Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

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(1) Lwanga Mwilu is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (
(2) La Tour, M. S. & Henthorne, T. L. 1994. 'Ethical judgements of sexual appeals in print advertising.' in Journal of Advertising, Vol XXIII(3):81-90.
(3) Hiller, M. ‘What really is for sale?’ The Media Magazine, 1 November 2009,
(4) ‘Sexpo’s racy ads banned’, Sapa, 21 September 2009,
(5) See the advertisement at
(6) ‘Sexpo’s racy ads banned’, Sapa, 21 September 2009,
(7) Ibid.
(8) See the image at
(9) Botho Molosankwe, ‘Offensive billboard creates a stir’, The Star, 29 September 2009,
(10) ‘Lolly death ‘inescapable’’, Sapa, 5 May 2010,
(11) Prinsloo, J. 2003. 'Childish images: The gendered depiction of childhood in popular South African magazines.’ in Agenda, 56: 26-36.
(12) Silverstone, R. 1999. 'Why study the media?' London: Sage.
(13) Boddewyn, J. J., 'Sex and decency in advertising around the world.' in Journal of Advertising, Vol XX(4):25-35.
(14) TMedia Monitoring Africa. 2009. 'Reporting a diverse nation. Recorded radio conference series broadcast on SAfm in conjunction with the Open Society Foundation.' Audio CD accessed through Rhodes Journalism Review (29).
(15) ‘Do we need naked women to advertise sofas?’ Reproductive health matters. November 2005.
(16) Fiss, M.O. 1996. 'The irony of free speech.' Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
(17) 'Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls', APA, 2007,
(18) Rishworth, A. ‘The sexualisation and objectification of young women and girls’, Australian Labor, 4 February 2010,
(19) Rape statistics – South Africa and worldwide, 2010,