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.