We’ve all heard the term “sex sells”. For the most part, it’s true, sex does sell. We see it at work nearly every day, in the movies, TV, magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. According to studies, selling sex really does improve profits. Products that appear “sexier” to consumers tend to sell better than those that don’t. But when does “sexy” become “sexist”?
There’s a lot of debate in feminist circles regarding the distinction, and it’s not always so clear cut. A few key components to remember when looking critically at an advertisement to ascertain if it’s sexist or not are:
1) Does the person appear to be in control of their sexuality? (Is she looking in the camera or at another person/is she actively taking part?)
2) Is the person pictured as an individual or just as body parts? (Often women are objectified as just “legs” or “lips” etc).
3) Does the ad show respect to the person’s humanity? (Are they treated like complex, non-stereotypical people)
While these questions aren’t full-proof by any means, they can go a long way in helping you figure out what’s OK and what crosses the line.
Unfortunately, many companies use sexist techniques in order to shock consumers into talking about their products and thus, generating interest in them. This technique can backfire, with people avoiding the product that’s associated with sexism but equally, the tactic can be effective. While we could easily sit here and debate the damaging effects that such a frame of mind can have on society, let’s instead take a look at some of the most overtly sexist ads that have been circulating over the past few years.
10. Burger King
In 2009, Burger King released an advertisement campaign in the Philippines to promote it’s new 7 inch sandwich. The ad, which was created by an independent advertising company, caused quite a stir in the Philippines and Burger King received numerous complaints.
The ad campaign, which features a doll-like woman staring blankly ahead of her with her mouth gaping wide, uses suggestive language such as the word “blow” to conjure up quite unappetizing images. The woman is not treated with respect, does not appear to be in control of her sexuality, and is portrayed as just a body part, ticking all the sexist boxes.
Unsurprisingly, in the same year as Burger King’s sexist ad campaign another fast food chain, Arby’s, used a similar ploy to sell its burgers in an ad that ran in the Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit issue. Arby’s advertisement shows a picture of a woman’s hands, crossed over one another and covering two burgers that are conveniently located where her breasts should be. The print reads “We’re about to reveal something you’ll drool over”, clearly trying to evoke the same feelings over their burgers that one might experience when seeing breasts. The advertisement which literally uses the female form just for its body parts is overtly sexist. With a subheading like “What a tease…” who could resist the charms of this unsubtle fast food chain.
8. Fluid Hair
Taking sexism to a whole new level is Edmonton’s Fluid Hair Salon. This disturbing ad campaign not only refuses to treat women with dignity, but it trivializes domestic violence. The ad campaign depicts beaten women with beautiful hair, and disregards the violence with the words “look good in all you do”. The advertisements, which are neither sexy or alluring but just plain insensitive, crosses a dangerous line between sexism and misogyny. Proving that sometimes women can be their own worst enemies, Fluid’s Sarah Cameron sees nothing wrong with the ads, claiming that people are “getting so sensitive”.
7. Hunky Dorys
When Hunky Dorys launched their Irish Rugby ad campaign, they received 3,000 complaints. People rallied against the blatant sexism that had little to do with crisps and everything to do with objectifying women. The ads which show busty women wearing, scantily cut jerseys, was supposed to be a bit of “fun” but many found it insulting. While the women are active participants in the ads, they’re outfits and suggestive positions undermine a woman’s place in sports (and in the larger world). However, sex does sell and the overwhelming backlash resulted in more publicity for Hunky Dory as they saw a 17% increase in sales in Northern Ireland.
6. Dolce & Gabbana
The luxury brand giant, Dolce and Gabbana is known for being risque in their advertisements and openly using sex to sell its products. However, one of their advertisements sparked controversy when they released an advertisement featuring five male models, one of which pinned a struggling female model down. The advertisement received plenty of criticism, with many people suggesting that it was glamourizing gang rape. D&G quickly pulled the advertisement, claiming ignorance, but the ad still remains a staple representation of sexist advertisements.
5. Mr. Clean
Apparently, in 2011 when women made up nearly half the workforce, Mr. Clean was adamant that a woman’s place is still in the home, cleaning. In celebration of mother’s day, Mr. Clean released an advertisement depicting a mother and a daughter celebrating the miracle that is cleanliness (and by association, domestic work). While there’s nothing wrong with domestic work, the idea that it’s the only job that matters for a woman is insulting. What makes the ad even more discouraging is that the speaker is represented as a man (Mr. Clean) telling a woman (the females featured in the ad) to get back to work; cue “get back in the kitchen” clichés.
4. Tom Ford
Tom Ford men’s clothing is renowned to its sexist depictions of women in their advertising campaigns. This particular campaign, shot by the controversial Terry Richardson, oozes sexism with every take. From objectifying, to gender stereotyping, they’ve done it all. Many of their advertisements have even been banned in certain countries, but they still garner a lot of attention.
3. American Apparel
American Apparel’s ads have often been accused of sexism, but it’s most controversial campaigns easily blur the lines between advertising and adult entertainment advertising. Using well-known adult entertainment stars, such as Lauren Phoenix, the clothing brand is literally using sex to sell their products. The three thumbnail pictures, as well as the print suggesting you “look her up” all create a very solid connection between the adult entertainment industry and American Apparel clothing. The ads which depict Lauren as nothing more than a sexual object definitely fail to address her in a dignified way, with the camera constantly looking down at her.
Using women in car commercials is nothing new, but BMW took it another step when they compared their pre-owned cars to a woman. The idea is that the ideal woman is a virgin, but when they’re extremely attractive, that doesn’t matter anymore (I guess like a car?) The overt sexism here is troubling to say the least, and the cliché comparison of a woman to a car is so overdone.
Ché’s ad campaign for “Let us keep dreaming of a better world” sees this”better world” containing only objectified women, apparently. The campaign, shot by Duval Guillaume, shows women depicted as inanimate or sexual objects. In one such ad, the woman wears an extremely short white skirt that’s pleats double up as detachable pieces of paper with her number on it. Another ad shows a woman posing on a man’s desk as literal representation of a “calender girl” while the man pays her as much notice as he would a standard calender. Let’s just hope that Ché’s dream of a better world doesn’t come true.