YWD: Sexist publicity: Enough is Enough!

Sexist publicity: Enough is Enough!

by Steven Guilbeault, A SEED Quebec

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There are some people who have decided that they have walked by too many advertising billboards with insulting depiction of women being used to sell products. Although these advertisements change constantly as well as the companies who make them, may I draw your attention to one in particular and use it as an example. The "Buffalo" clothing enterprise is making what I consider an all out assault on human dignity. The latest one I have noticed is a naked women (who could be a 12 years old) with only a "Buffalo" knapsack and high heels on.

How it is possible that society is able to consume human beings, especially mass consumption of women as objects. How can a society, which aspires to be human, tolerate advertising like the ones we've seen around by Christian Dior, Buffalo and Guess Jeans ?

The images of women, presented on these posters, constitutes a violation of human rights as they put in question the dignity and integrity of women (art. 5 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Let's look at an other example: the ad for Christian Dior which uses the body of a 12 year old girl as if it was the ideal female physique. The image is accompanied by a beauty product which claims to "help" reduce cellulite, which is a perfectly natural textural element of some women's skin. This physical standard being imposed by companies promotes low self esteem and neurosis in women, related to body image.

The problem does not stop with illusionist images and impossible standards, there is also the problem of objectification. When we are confronted with the problem of aggression and violence against women, young and old, it might be wise to see the link between the objectification of women in these ads and their promise of sexual availability in contrast with the real desires of women. This view of the ideal woman also distorts and erases the diverse realities of women of color, women who can't afford to buy into the social standard depicted, and women who simply don't have the right shape.

Publicity is first and above all a tool being used by the industry, it is a mean of communication use by advertisers to transmit information on their products and services to their potential clients. As such, it is a very powerful way of communication. Idealistically, the publicity practitioners should take into account contemporary social problems, and should reflect them in transforming their creations. But real life can sometimes be far from ideal... The way women are being portrayed in contemporary publicity (as they have been for quit some time) is through objectification, misrepresentation and dehumanization.

People all over have decided that enough was enough. Women and men have joined forces to fight sexist publicity. Their actions are qualify as "vandalism" by publicity companies, and of "Fair and just" by a growing number of people.

Let us look at some initiatives that are taking place in North America:

This is part of a press release that was produce by a Montreal based group called the Overactive Ovaries (no references are available for this group so far):

More and more people are fed up with the boastful power that companies wield to manipulate the masses to consume their products. We won't sit around anymore and let these assault take place. As a cry for public consciousness we have decided to fight back by attacking that which we feel insulted by in order to make a point. We are a collective of women and men who believe in a society that has more respect for human beings. Women as humans, deserve to see their images reflected not solely as an ideal, but in a diversity of realities which are less harmful. The objectification must end. Sincerely, The Overactive Ovaries

Among other activities, the OOs specialize in painting over sexist adds. The next one is by a Californian group named Barbie Liberation Organization:

Hundreds of southern California boys and girls may have thought Santa Claus 'elves were a playing a prank when they opened their presents on Christmas day. Boys found their talking G.I Joe saying, "let's go shopping," and girls opened their talking Barbie to be greeted with an unladylike, "vengeance is mine".

The culture jamming group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization was to blame for gender bending shenanigans. For the past two holiday seasons the BLO switched the sound chips of hundreds of Barbies and G.I. Joes in a process they call "reverse shoplifting." The BLO bought the dolls, altered them and then discreetly returned them to the store's shelves to be bought by unsuspecting consumers. (1)

Upon request, the BLO can provide you with a manual on how to start your own "reverse shoplifting" activities. These two examples are about organized groups, but there are also a lot of individual and spontaneous actions which are also an important part of this protest movement against sexist publicity. I would like to conclude by this quote from a women activist (and friend of mine):

Basic human rights belong to women as well as men in society. No-one should have to be afraid that they will be subject to violence, slavery, hunger and denied the freedom to be who they are. Yet images that have the power to create and influence our reality, and who are controlled by a small group in society, carry this threat for women. (2)


  1. Suzanne Zalev, ADBUSTERS; Journal of the Mental Environment, Summer 1995, Vol.3, No.4, p. 45.
  2. Michelle Peters, "A Plea for Human Rights : The sexual Objectification, Misrepresentation & Dehumanization of Women in a Patriarchal System of Order", Concordia University, Montreal, 1994, p. 12.

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