Is it fair to ban sexual ads in an overly-sexual market?

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April 15, 2013 by Nash Riggins

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has lambasted US retailer American Apparel once more after the watchdog ruled that the trader’s most recent online ads were “likely to cause serious offence” to online shoppers. It’s not hard to see where the ASA was coming from – after all, one group of images promoting bodysuits and thigh-high stockings places so much emphasis on the crouching model’s groin that it looks like something straight out of a lads’ mag.

Yet as this brand of overly-sexualised ads has effectively become the norm of today’s retail marketplace, it seems somewhat hypocritical that American Apparel should be hung out to dry, whilst the equally provocative ads of other retailers are completely disregarded.

The voyeuristic promotional photos American Apparel was ordered to remove from the public domain are undeniably provocative – and the ASA believed the photos a step too far, citing a reason for alarm being that one “model’s facial expression appeared blank, if not unsure,” which caused the watchdog to be “concerned that she appeared vulnerable.” A model with a blank expression? Quite an astute observation coming from an organisation tasked with sitting around and looking at adverts all day, but okay.

First and foremost, the signature ‘blank expression’ to which the ASA cited is everywhere – I mean, when was the last time you saw a Top Shop model smiling, or even frowning? One can only assume that this emotionless countenance is indicative of a wider 20-something fashion trend (ie ‘I’m a hipster, and I’m too cool to care about anything’); therefore, this is hardly a reason to slap the wrist of one company in particular.

Meanwhile, where American Apparel’s ‘overtly-sexual’ promos are concerned, it seems safe to broadly assume that the company has merely opted to illustrate certain fashion trends as they’re intended to be used. In no way does that marginalise the integrity of the wearer, nor should it be allowed to validate the rampant level of male chauvinism that continues to dominate Britain’s advertising industry even today; however, we all know that Ann Summers stocks a hefty supply of thigh highs for a reason.

So, if anything, American Apparel should be commended for its unprecedented and unpretentious level of self-awareness; after all, even brands that don’t sell clothing rely almost exclusively upon scantily clad sex symbols to sell their product using ‘gratuitous emphasis on the groin’. Is that sexist? A lot of people would say so, but that’s neither here, nor there. What should really bother consumers is that regulators apparently think that a scantily clad model online is completely inappropriate, but for some reason a naked model in a family newspaper is.

I don’t often join the Page 3 debate, because I only ever flip through The Sun whilst waiting for service in my local barbershop; however, it’s when cases come up such as that of American Apparel’s run-in with the ASA that regulators’ continued inaction regarding Page 3 is of the utmost significance.

The Sun is Britain’s highest-selling newspaper, and parents across the country casually toss copies of it all over the house – apparently not bothered in the slightest that their young children see a glamour model baring it all on a daily basis. This begs the question: if parents and regulators are happy to allow a family newspaper into their homes that promotes itself by exploiting nude women using sex, why can’t a website promote itself using images that exploit almost-nude women using sex?

As long as Page 3 is around, we might as well not regulate anything in the media based upon over-sexualisation – because no matter what, something will always slip under the radar and be released into the public. Why? Because, tasteful or not, it’s apparently what a lot of people want to see. There’s nothing nice about blatant level of sexism that is embedded in the UK’s advertising industry; however, the ASA should recognize that it’s hardly worthwhile to point a finger at one company in particular without pointing a finger at the industry as a whole.


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