The article comes from that iconic feminist magazine Spare Rib, which ran from 1972 to 1993 — you know, up until the time ‘girl power’ came in and ruined women’s lives for the forseeable future by feeding us a false consciouness about ’empowerment’ and ‘choice’ and how great it is to get your tits out. Anyhoo. In the 1978 article, Jill Nicholls and Pat Moan report on discussions they had with representatives from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK. When compared with WAAC’s own experiences with the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB)Community Panel here in Australia, it only serves to show capitalism and patriarchy are, indeed, ‘better together’ …
The 1978 article starts with a description of what it’s like to wait for a train in the underground:
I am alone in the underground waiting for a train. All around me are huge images
of female parts: giant rubbery peach tone breasts, wet lips, denim bums, damp-looking stomachs, long legs in high heels (“Hundreds of women take them off for us every day”). I don’t know where to look that doesn’t make me feel angry or vulnerable. A man comes into the tunnel and looks me up and down. All these ads are like his gang—telling him I am a cunt-thing, a leg-thing, a breast-thing and that I am waiting for him. He is psyched up to think that he has a right to me. (The Lovable bra ad, his hand resting lightly but oh so firmly on her naked waist—his territory).
Note how this seems to be a direct ancestor to what Jane Gilmore wrote just the other week — i.e., forty years later — in her SMH article, The images of women making society more dangerous:
I live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The tram ride to the CBD takes about half an hour. Late last year I spent a week counting every sexualised image of women I could see from my seat on the tram. I couldn’t get below 100 images on any single half hour journey. I’ve been catching that tram for 20 years and until that week I’d barely noticed those images, let alone how pervasive they are. The things we don’t notice are far more dangerous than the things we do. How many women do you know who look like this? The answer is none because these women don’t even look like this. But these images are everywhere: sexual, passive, objectifying, demeaning, and inescapable.
Jill and Pat (and yes, we like to call women by their first names, here — why not?) point out that the ASA in the UK “hotly deny that sexist images are a general representation of women“. WAAC will get around to asking members of the ASB’s Community Panel directly how they understand the links between individual, sexualised images of women and the effects that these have on women’s lives as a whole, but in the meantime, all we can note is that the Panel currently don’t even go there: they disregard this matter entirely.
Another fascinating similarity is the ways in which Jill and Pat report that the ASA in the UK had trouble understanding basic semiotic analyses when presented with them — same as the ASB here. This is a worry, as a minimal apprehension of how words and images convey meaning would seem to be a pre-requisite if you’re sitting on a panel that is meant to evaluate advertising.
In the 1978 case, the ASA received a number of complaints about an ad for Wells orange drink that depicted a sexually exaggerated, cartoon woman with the slogan, ‘Juicy, fruity, fresh & cheap’. The crap ASA response to this crap ad was, “the majority of the council didn’t think that the words could logically apply to the caricature of the women” (italics in the original article). Which is a pretty mental — indeed, illogical — statement cos otherwise why is the woman even there if she isn’t meant to communicate a message of some kind? And we all know how much advertisers love their double-entendres. Jill and Pat go on to say that, “The fact that the drawing was stylised loomed large for the council — quite why escaped us. They seem to see style and humour as a thing apart from the ‘content’ or ‘meaning’ of an ad, which they take clodhoppingly literally.” The ASB’s Community Panel does something similar when talking about how the individual models used in sexist adverts appear ‘relaxed’ or ‘in control of her situation’ or ‘confident’. Again, is it so hard to grasp the semiotics of a picture of a woman who is doing a porno-mouth-thing-with-a-strawberry? Or one who is suggestively putting her thumb under her suspender strap? Struth, it ain’t difficult. Or even intermellectual.
Jill n Pat, Pat n Jill further go on to describe the ASA’s lack of nuance when it comes to analysing advertising, again pointing out that the chances of complaints about sexist advertising “being understood is pretty low. They can spot a nude when they see one, and disapprove, but don’t delve much deeper.” This made us lol, given how the Community Panel focuses so much on ‘nudity’ even when it isn’t mentioned in a complaint.
There does seem to be a difference between the ASA and our very own ASB, however; forty years ago, according to Jill and Pat, the ASA did “claim to know the difference between feminist objections to the exploitation of women and puritanical revulsions at nudity as such.” That seems an advance on the Community Panel, who seem very confused by feminist analysis, to the point where they can’t even engage with it.
Ad Standards, you’ve been WAAC’d.