New Internationalist

Groan… roll on the sexist ads


There’s more to Christmas than sexist adverts. Photo: Leiris 2002, under a CC License.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas in Britain. Frost has fallen, the office Christmas party has borne enough embarrassment-ammo to survive a Mayan apocalypse, and things are feeling just that little bit more sexist.

The poster-brand for this festive misogyny has been Walmart-owned supermarket chain Asda, whose ‘behind every Christmas, there’s mum’ television advert sparked a national outcry. It features the tired gender stereotypes of the work-horse mother smilingly slaving away as her husband slouches on the sofa in some kind of fluffy, socially acceptable masochism. The advert became the subject of heated social media discussion and was in turn criticized globally. The end result was a monumental 160 complaints received by the Advertising Standards Agency, with talk of an enquiry into the advert itself.

As things began to snowball, a number of media outlets discussed sexism within the context of Christmas advertising. Who can forget the erotic-nausea of the famed Marks & Spencer ‘model girl jiggles in Santa-themed underwear’ advert? Nobody, it seems. Magazines, viral videos, even banner ads have come under the eagle-eye of media critics keen to dissect this seasonal sexist phenomenon. Lewd sexual innuendo is now apparently appropriate for a traditional family and religious occasion as shown by Ann Summers’ recent ‘hottest ever TV ad’.

Over in the US the same phenomena have been occurring. Trivializing rape under the guise of ‘banter’ could be found in the similarly protested Virgin Mobile advert that captioned an image of a man surprising a woman from behind with a Christmas gift with ‘Necklace or Chloroform?  Entrenched gender stereotypes can be found across the board, although one particularly ingenious advert for Swiffer cleaning products nice-and-offensively paints men as unclean oafs – with an image of a man cleaning and the caption ‘Caution: men being awesome’ deserves highlighting.

One point that hasn’t been as widely discussed is that these adverts are not linked to the season. This kind of marketing won’t go away when the festivities end in a few days’ time; rather, they will be drip-fed throughout the year, less noticeable simply because they will not be sharing time with other brands pushing the same angle. Sometimes, I think the commercial pressure around the season in this economic downturn has pushed companies to this sensationalism. But then I wake up and remember that this year alone we have seen one Fiat ad for a man wanting his girlfriend surgically enhanced and one from the European Commission (who should definitely know better) suggesting that girls like science, because it teaches them about make-up.

The current advertising landscape by its very nature thrives upon the notion of not being good enough. The official marketing term is ‘aspirational’ (read: feel belittled by and purchase out of insecurity). The idea is that if you wear this perfume or these clothes you can be that girl from the advertisement, with her hunky boyfriend and salad diet. The same occurs with men –  get the car, get the girl. It’s a far-too-simple formula that the notorious ‘sex sells’ motto has created. However, when the aspiration is extended to, say, having a labour-heavy, gruelling Christmas, or being so cool that, hey, you can laugh at anything, even rape, the cracks become very apparent. These are aspirations created by the advertisers, and are certainly not the aspirations of most thoughtful people in their right mind.

It’s easy to get carried away with discussions on the nature of commodity, marketing and capitalism, but putting all those greater-picture dialogues to one side, the current state of advertising does not need to be this way. Forgetting the glaring problem that advertising is merely there to increase profit for often dubious organizations, it doesn’t have to be a constant and offensive assault on those less enamoured with misogyny. Sometimes, as John Lewis, or Dove have shown, it can be almost pleasant.

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