Britain to ban sexist ads?

That's what the media implies, but sexism isn't dead just yet.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published September 6, 2008 9:30AM (EDT)

Daily Star

An orgasmic octopus in an Orangina commercial.

At times, the British media's coverage of Parliament's recent call for "zero-tolerance" of sexist advertising reads like a teary-eyed deathbed farewell. The Metro shares its dark vision: "The days of watching scantily clad models dancing on distant beaches to promote the latest perfume could be numbered." Sniff. Meanwhile, the Daily Star offers a funereal reminiscence on Britain's "best-loved" ads: "Sophie Dahl's mouth-watering naked ad for Opium and wonderbra's famous Hello Boys ads." It also gives a nod to Orangina's zoophilic wonderland (freeze frame at right).

But, the rumors of sexism's death have been greatly exaggerated. A large majority of the European Parliament on Wednesday adopted a report on media and gender equality that, among other things, argues that advertising "deemed to portray women as sex objects or reinforce gender stereotypes" should be prohibited -- but the report isn't legally binding. In other words: a complete ban on all sexist and stereotypical imagery hasn't been enacted -- and it isn't imminent, either.

What if it were, though? I'm all for calling out offensive advertisers and voting against them with my dollars, but I can't get behind complete censorship. Not to mention, a ban would require arriving at an agreed-upon definition of sexist imagery, and good luck with that. Eva-Britt Svensson, the report's author, actually says that her aim "is to make it impossible to use gender stereotypes in advertising." What, then, would be permissible -- images of anti-stereotypes? An apron-clad man putting dinner on the table or a woman in grease-covered overalls rolling out from under her pickup, wrench in hand?

I would love to see those images and advertisers should be pressured to upend gender stereotypes. But we all know that stereotypes are true some of the time: Some women bake, some men fix cars. It seems to me it would be difficult to ban advertising stereotypes without creating new gendered images that are similarly limiting.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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