Britain to ban sexist ads?

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

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.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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