It will come as no shock to learn that the notion that the advertising industry could possibly regulate itself is going to be flawed. As part of a non-scientific experiment* a WAAC member recently lodged a series of complaints about sexually objectifying advertising with the Advertising Standards Bureau (Ad Standards) Community Panel to find out on what grounds a complaint would be dismissed.
Ad Standards is, along with the AANA, half of “Australia’s gold standard system of self-regulation” (sorry to expose you to that, but it’s from the AANA website — you can tell it’s written by someone in advertising: it’s awful). We therefore knew when going into the project that complaints lodged with a self-regulating industry body would likely be dismissed; however, our objective wasn’t to get the ads removed, per se, but, rather, to gather data about the kinds of tactics and ‘arguments’ put forth by the Ad Standards Community Panel when they dismiss complaints — as they almost invariably do when it comes to advertising that objectifies women.
The complaints involved serial offenders Bras N Things and Honey Birdette and their mall-facing, public-walkway advertising at Westfield Belconnen. You can see from the ‘case reports’ (as if anything was properly ‘investigated’, and attached at the end of this post) what the complaints involved, i.e., the same old stuff.
What we were surprised to find, however, was how much Ad Standards appears to gaslight women. (If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘gaslighting’ refers to manipulating another’s perception of reality, basically by telling that their concerns aren’t real, that they’re crazy, or that they’re imagining things.) Of course, gaslighting is deliberate and wilful, and we can’t say for certain that the Community Panel is intentionally ignoring the manifest harm that is visited on women as a social class as a result of the ubiquity of sexually objectifying advertising … but given all the research out there, and noting that most of the members of the Community Panel seem pretty educated (see their bios), it certainly is peculiar.
So, here’s what’s the members of the Community Panel at Ad Standards do, if we are to treat their responses to our complaints as an attempt at gaslighting:
- They ignore evidence-based arguments based on the documented harms that sexually objectifying images of women cause to women and girls as an oppressed social and political class. It was pointed out that these images objectify women, promote greater tolerance of violence towards women, lead to body dismorphia amongst women and girls, cause women and girls to self-objectify and internalise misogyny, and that fundamentally diminishes women’s personhood and basic right to being treated as whole human persons. But the Community Panel apparently doesn’t read that kind of stuff. Instead, they re-focus the complaint on the individual model and whether or not she appears “confident”, “relaxed”, and “in control of her situation”. So, even though the individual model wasn’t mentioned in the complaint, the Community Panel nevertheless treats the model herself as the nucleus of the advertisement, and not the fact that this kind of advertising promotes and enables male violence towards women. This is gaslighting.
- They focus on ‘nudity’ even when it is not mentioned in the complaint, as if such complaints could only possibly be made by anti-sex, conservative prudes who are ‘offended’ by a bit of womanflesh. Maybe this can’t be helped, as section 2.4 of their crappy Code of Ethics deals with sex, sexuality, and nudity, but the Panel in no way spends quite as much time on the sex and sexuality part of section 2.4 as they do on the nudity part … which seems curiously like gaslighting to us.
- They misrepresent the complaint made. In none of our member’s complaints did the complainant state that they found the advertisements in question degrading to the particular woman or women in the advertisements; instead, the complaints solely dealt with the clear degradation of women as a class that such advertisements help sustain. But despite that fact, the Community Panel ‘notes’ — on multiple occasions — complainant’s “concerns that the advertisement was degrading toward the woman in the advertisement.” This is quite simply untrue and demonstrates sloppiness in the Community Panel’s reading of complaints. Here, it seems that the Community Panel just assumes that the complaint is focused solely on the woman in the picture and not on women and girls in general. This seems almost wilful to us, as we can’t see why the members of the Community Panel would have such trouble comprehending an argument made on pretty basic sociological grounds, given how educated they all seem to be. Can only be gaslighting, then?
- They focus on women’s individual body parts — nipples, breasts, genitals, pubic area — when the complaint does not. This one is just plain weird and, frankly, a bit creepy. Eeew.
- They emphasise that it is reasonable for a retailer to advertise their product, i.e., lingerie, even when the complaint does not raise this is an issue. This is just further gaslighting with the message, ‘Hey, they’re just trying to make a buck, why are you being so unreasonable?’ Of course retailers have a right to advertise their product, duh; what they don’t have a right to do is to do it in such a way that dehumanises an entire class of humans and that leads to increased tolerance of violence towards women and girls. Gaslighting, gaslighting, gaslighting, gaslighting, if the pattern above is any indication.
- They fail to apply a community standard to the use of sexually objectifying images of women that appear in an environment that includes children. OK, this one is a bit more subjective, but hey, we’d suggest that you show a comparison of actual porn images and some Bras N Things images to most punters down the mall, and they’d say, ‘Yeah, kids don’t need to see that’. They state that a pose in which a woman ‘presents’ (as it is known in the animal kingdom — just think about that for a minute) is “not overly sexualised” and one in which a woman places her thumb underneath a suspender strap (see below) is “only mildly sexual” and would be appropriate for a relevant audience that includes children.
Ad Standards. Setting the standard for gaslighting.
Ad Standards, you’ve been WAAC’d.
The images, below, are brought to you by your local Westfield.
* We are OK with non-science because, you know, in this post-modern world, opinion is incontestible, scholarship is suspicious, and ‘feels’ are where it’s at.