Monday, June 13, 2011

Gratuitous female nudity is the marketing world’s equivalent of spag bol for supper

By Jennifer O'Connell

I’ll say this for much modern advertising: it doesn’t discriminate. It makes idiots of us all.

Yes, it turns women into over-sharing, unthreatening twits, desperately trying to navigate a terrifying world of bowel problems, unfluffy laundry and stubbly bikini lines.

But that’s all right, because it makes men look stupid too, transforming them into gurning fools who struggle to complete the most unchallenging of household tasks, believe deodorant makes them sexually attractive, and strut about town offering unsolicited advice to strangers on mortgages and broadband.

However, there’s still one critical difference between how men and women are portrayed in advertising and PR campaigns.

While the men in Ad World also get to drive fast cars, drink beer, chat up women and go on fly-fishing expeditions with their mates, women, when we’re not being mere idiots, get to take our clothes off.

We get to stand buck-naked in a field of wheat to advertise a product for gingivitis; we get to get our bum cheeks out on a rugby pitch to advertise a brand of crisps; we get to take off all our other clothes to make sure you notice how lovely our watch is.

Gratuitous female nudity is the marketing world’s equivalent of spag bol for supper. It’s the lazy choice, the cheap and easy staple.

When you really can’t think of a single good reason why anybody would actually want to buy your client’s product, you simply pay a nice-looking girl to stand beside it, in it or on it, wearing as few clothes as possible, and hope passers-by will stare long enough to notice the brand name.

A recent American Psychological Association (APA) report highlights how widespread the objectification of women is in the media: ‘‘In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (eg dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (eg used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized."

The sexualisation of women doesn’t stop at women either: in recent years, little girls have been targeted.

An ad campaign by Gap earlier this year highlighting the different styles of jeans available for kids showed a little girl of seven or eight standing on her tippy toes, and leaning back to apparently get a better look at her bum.

The jean styles for children are the same as for adults, and include the ‘skinny’ and the ‘super skinny’.

The APA study concluded that advertising which sexualised women and children in this way is not just lazy and offensive: it has potentially serious psychological implications, from a heightened self-awareness in girls which can lead to an impaired ability to concentrate, to ‘‘eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood [and] diminished sexual health’’.

But it wasn’t just girls who were damaged by it: ‘‘exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an ‘‘acceptable’’ partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner."

The British government this week approved a range of new measures to curb the sexualisation and commercialisation of children in the media, while a number of retailers agreed to ‘good practice’ guidelines which would include a ban on the sale of inappropriate clothing to children - such as the now-famous padded bra for six-year-olds.

But while this move is welcome, the media furore over padded bras has detracted from the wider issue - the offensive and reductive nature of so much marketing and advertising aimed at women.

If certain sections of the Irish PR industry have read the APA’s report at all, then they seem to have taken it not as a warning but as a recommendation, so married are they to the Carry On school of marketing.

A particularly memorable recent effort featured a man dressed as a giant red pepper being pursued through a damp St Stephen’s Green by three models in bikinis. I haven’t got a clue what it was supposed to publicise, but it’ll be a long time before I manage to delete the image from my internal hard-drive.

But despite all this, there are some companies which you might expect would resist the urge to reduce women to the sum total of their body parts, or to espouse what the APA calls one ‘‘narrow and unrealistic standard of beauty’’.

Unislim, a company which promotes ‘‘a sensible approach to healthy eating’’, and which uses real role models and actual slimming stories to inspire its members, is one from which you might be forgiven for hoping for a more imaginative approach.

And yet very recently, a picture landed in my inbox from Unislim’s recent promotional campaign with Eddie Rocket’s. It wasn’t that the image itself was particularly offensive or unusually crass: the giant red pepper has the copyright on that.

In this case, it was more about the troubling message the campaign sent out. It featured a very thin model wearing a tiny red bikini and six inch heels posing awkwardly in the middle of an Eddie Rocket’s outlet as she pretended to take a bite out of a so called ‘‘bikini burger’’.

What kind of message does an image like this send out to the women who are working hard to achieve a healthy weight, but won’t ever have a 26 inch waist? (And let’s not even get into the wisdom of promoting burgers as a healthy choice.)

The answer, of course, is that the PR campaign wasn’t designed with Unislim’s own members in mind - the bikini photos never made it onto the Unislim website.

Rather, it was aimed at the sections of the mainstream media for whom ‘‘newsworthy’’ very often means ‘‘accompanied by an attractive woman sporting beachwear in an inappropriate setting’’.

I derived some temporary pleasure From the discovery that Ryanair had recently been banned by the British Advertising Standards Authority over an ad campaign featuring yet another bikini-clad model, who was there for no very good reason other than she was wearing a bikini.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the gratuitous semi-nudity itself wasn’t the problem.

Rather, it was the suggestion that the destinations featured in the ad (Rimini, Lourdes, Derry, Glasgow and Oslo) would be hot enough for a bikini in early spring, when in fact that they would be a chilly ten degrees or lower. Oh well.

You’ve got to start somewhere.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday June 12, 2011.


  1. Great article. Somebody said "even in abstraction the figure remains irresistible" and it's unfortunate that a better understanding of such concepts isn't widespread. I wrote on a similar and related topic recently I definitely think that many of the myths and stereotypes are perpetuated by advertising and mainstream television. It has inspired me to start a project which I will share with you once I kick it off... mysterious... :)

  2. I'm a bit sick of it too. It's pretty patronising to men too - you see gadget magazines like Stuff or T3 that I'd like to read for the gadgets but they feel like they have to plaster boobies everywhere - it's not like I'm short on options if I do want a magazine with boobs everywhere.

    However, most ads do make men out to be idiots. Silly daddy at the toast so mummy burnt his shirt with the iron or whatnot.

  3. I wish I could remember what it was, or which Minister it was, but I clearly remember YEARS ago covering the launch of a Government report and there were models there. God I wish I could remember what that was, I have a horrible feeling it was for a report on poverty...or was it building...something. This is a terrible comment cos I can't remember, but I clearly remember being there and then getting the PR shots afterwards and thinking 'Did he really stand there with a hard hat on flanked by two models?!'

    And this was YEARS and years ago, so it's nothing new.

    The man dressed as a pepper thing is so odd isn't it? What could it possibly be for?

  4. Oh my God Karen, you're right....Was it Willie O'Dea? I'm going to have to get Twitter onto this.I will not rest until I have an answer for us.

    Stu, you're so right. I think advertising in generally is horribly patronising to men too, and I include the bikini shoots in that.

  5. I don't know if it was Willie O'Dea. The more I think about it the more I remember there being several incidences of bikini models and Government ministers. Was there not...ok, maybe I'm making this up...but was there not a statement released saying the Government wouldn't use models anymore, after an outcry, as it was a waste of money. Or something. Am I making that bit up?

  6. I don't know...but I sure as hell hope you're not! I've put the call out on Twitter. Hopefully someone will remember.

  7. Another great article shedding light on a very contentious subject but one that certainly needs to be highlighted more. Can I just add that the photo editors for many of the tabloids are partly to blame for the bikini photocalls that dominate their pages? Think 'outside the box' with your shoot without using model and it doesn't get used. Propose doing it 'tastefully' and the photographer will tell you the less clothes the better. Talk to the independent photo agencies and they'll advise using a model for many shoots if you want to get coverage in the papers. For models their charges are higher when they dress in a bikini! When 6 out of the 9 dailies are more likely to use models in suggestive poses- often scantily clad- and the other 3 don't publish too many photocalls, then a PR company isn't left with a whole lot of options if they want to achieve print coverage for their client. (Not that many would do it when it is completely irrelevant, inappropriate for the brand or its audience, like the examples cited above). However, many photo editors believe their male readers want to see these kind of pics. Is it patronising to men and degrading to women? Yes. But will it change any time soon? I don't think so!

  8. Mystery solved. It was John O'Donoghue at the launch of the Tourism Ireland Autumn/Winter schedule in 2006. And they weren't quite wearing bikinis.

  9. That's not the one I was thinking of though. I don't think. Damn my bad memory!

    I should have known it'd be Johnny boy though!

  10. And Dick Roche! I knew there was one with hard hats. Scroll down.

  11. Nice pics!!!! What's the article about?

  12. great article,never really thought about how it affects men creating unrealistic standards and all.....Maybe you'll like this vid :P

  13. Just read this. Great article. Bikini clad models is such lazy PR. I can't believe clients actually hand over money to trained PR "professionals" for this coverage.

    Trouble is that most Photo Editors are men. So to fill a page it gets used. Mostly in the tabloids. This furthers your article's point of course. Continuing to make idiots of us all.

  14. Wonderful wallpaper and sexy girls but Article is really interesting enjoy ...

  15. It's not just one way - what about all of the TV adverts that make men look like complete bumbling simpletons unable to carry out simple household tasks?

    The latest ASDA advert is particularly offensive, to my mind. "Behind every great Christmas, there's Mum." - that's going to make a single-parent Dad shop there, isn't it!

  16. As a consumer, I love the use of attractive women with my products

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Great post! ... also, a great documentary on this issue - advertising image of women and the consequences: Killing Us Softly 4 -

  19. I agree with all the sentiments in this article. The padded bikini for a 6 year old is particularly disturbing, did that actually happen? 6 years old, really?

    Anyway, it struck me - as my moral indignation and sense of righteousness was building - that the reason this post caught my eye was the photo of the 'lovely girl' in a bikini. It's sad, but it is true.

    I clicked and read it because I work in the advertising industry myself, but I guess the initial 'awareness' is why marketing professionals take this easy option. I don't think there are any fixes for that, it's quite deeply hard-wired in males, but up to the regulators to ensure the line is clearly defined.

  20. great publish, very informative. I ponder why the opposite specialists of this
    sector don't understand this. You should proceed your writing. I am sure, you've a huge readers' base already!

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  21. Came here via Google search for "Shoes and handbags" for a company I was looking for. The bikini clad model with pepper showed up, and made me click to find out what the red pepper was. Point being, I only noticed for the bikini clad model.

    So to be clear: A bikini clad model drove at least one visitor to your website, I read the article as well, in my defense. With an IQ of 147, I'm still drawn by beautiful bodies on display. We're not dumb, but we are ruled by instinct, and mans instinct is to survey women. Sadly we live in a world where we're supposed to deny what makes us what we are.

    .. Incidentally, spag bol would be a major effort for me. The 'easy' choice is a take-away, the suicially risky choice for me is to cook anything that can be undercooked, burned, or contaminated. Take from that what you will. I made a curry for an ex girlfriend once - the best way to describe it would be salty cat food. Spag bol the easy choice.. PAH! Maybe with cookery lessons from a bikini clad model, I would learn something and be able to successfully concoct advanced recipes such as a cheese & ham sandwich.

    1. Does my missing 'd' count as a failed suicide attempt ?

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