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.
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(1) Lwanga Mwilu is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(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, http://www.themediaonline.co.za.
(4) ‘Sexpo’s racy ads banned’, Sapa, 21 September 2009, http://www.news24.com.
(5) See the advertisement at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BC4ZiKgv_M.
(6) ‘Sexpo’s racy ads banned’, Sapa, 21 September 2009, http://www.news24.com.
(8) See the image at http://www.chrisrawlinson.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Teasers_thumb.jpg.
(9) Botho Molosankwe, ‘Offensive billboard creates a stir’, The Star, 29 September 2009, http://www.thestar.co.za.
(10) ‘Lolly death ‘inescapable’’, Sapa, 5 May 2010, http://news.iafrica.com.
(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. http://findarticles.com.
(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, http://www.apa.org.
(18) Rishworth, A. ‘The sexualisation and objectification of young women and girls’, Australian Labor, 4 February 2010, http://www.alp.org.au.
(19) Rape statistics – South Africa and worldwide, 2010, http://www.rape.co.za.