New challenge for Ad Standards

Will the amended advertising Code of Ethics make any real difference for women and girls?

Recently, changes were made to section 2.2 of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics — this is the section that stipulates limits to the use of sexual appeal in advertising.

Under section 2.2(b) of the Code, advertising or marketing communications are now not permitted to employ sexual appeal “in a manner which is exploitative or degrading of any individual or group of people”. Previously, the Code prohibited the use of sexual appeal in a manner that was exploitative and degrading.

Changes have also been made to the definition of the term ‘exploitative’.

Prior to the amendments, the term ‘exploitative’ was defined by the AANA as, “clearly appearing to purposely debase or abuse a person, or group of persons, for the enjoyment of others, and lacking moral, artistic or other values”. From 1 March 2018 under the revised Code ‘exploitative’ has been redefined as a) “taking advantage of the sexual appeal of a person, or group of people by depicting them as commodities”, or b) “focussing on their body parts where this bears no relevance to the product or service being advertised”. The definition of ‘degrading’ remains unchanged.

On the face of it, the new Code appears to represent a significant improvement on the previous version.

The first of the changes outlined above addresses what was an obvious flaw in a Code of Ethics worthy of the name: Why should an advertisement have to be judged both exploitative and degrading in order to be deemed a legitimate subject of consumer complaint? The AANA has effectively acknowledged this failing, stating that the Public and Regulatory Affairs Committee that developed the change “could see no logical reason why advertisements that the Advertising Standards Board deemed to use sexual appeal in a manner that was ‘exploitative’ alone should also not be prohibited under the Code of Ethics”.

The redefinition of ‘exploitative’ to target advertisements that gratuitously focus on women’s body parts should ideally result in the elimination of the most egregious examples of sexist advertising. As such, it represents an obvious enhancement to the Code.

The merit of the other redefinition of ‘exploitative’ — which prohibits the depiction of women as commodities — is less immediately obvious. While the change should in theory capture a wider range of sexist advertising (such as that routinely on display at Westfield Belconnen) than does the current definition, much will depend on how it is interpreted by the Ad Standards Community Panel.

If the Panel’s current approach to customer complaints — one that is informed by neoliberal and individualistic assumptions — is anything to go by, then much of the more subtle and insidious sexist advertising that we see around us will persist. This is because the Panel’s focus will remain on the individual women in advertisements whose sexual appeal is being exploited and whether or not they, as individuals, are being treated as commodities, rather than on the images’ commodification of women (and girls) as a whole.

So long as the scantily clad women in suggestive poses are portrayed as ‘comfortable’ and ‘confident’, the Panel may continue to assert that these women are ‘empowered’ and anything but commodities. To the extent that this is case, the Panel, the Code of Ethics, and the AANA will continue to fail women and girls.


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