The ban on sexism in advertising

Dirk Ziems

Currently, there is much controversy about Minister of Justice Maas's plans to limit and ban sexist and misogynist (gender discriminatory) advertising. How should we evaluate the ban on sexism in advertising from the market researcher’s point of view, and what questions does it raise?

Are women really the victims of sexist advertising?

The Ministry of Justice argues that advertising which shows women half-naked and suggestively posed insults the dignity of women. Ultimately, this means that all women are victims, as advertising propagates an image of women which degrades them to the role of a sex object. Does this view of them as victims correspond to reality, or is the Minister of Justice only acting as the enforcer from the unfashionable days of old feminist ideologists which no longer match the image of most young women?

In studies of the Millennials and Generation Y – i.e. the younger generations, born after 1990 – we see that the role models, visual images and body images of both young women and young men have changed. Young women generally no longer want to pulled into the battleground of the women's movement – they see female emancipation as a generational issue for their mothers and grandmothers (e.g. Alice Schwarzer). Young women deal with the issue of female identity in a relaxed and even playfully casual way. Women see themselves as “girls”, and developing a sense of their own feminine strengths, a female image with their own sexiness is a form of behaviour for young women to develop their own identity.

The Millennials and Generation Y are generations which attach the greatest importance to aesthetics and skilful and well-groomed appearance. Their school is Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, their training camp is their own social media profile and posts. Naturally, this has narcissistic elements, but should you ban teens from advertising themselves in a sexy style in their posts? For young women, sexiness is a confident game, with its own aesthetic and style codes. The notion of victim which underlies the ban on sexism in advertising misses the psychological reality of modern young women.

Do men need to be protected against temptation from sexist advertising?

The desire for an aesthetic appearance has long since been a male issue too, and young men are right up there with young women in their style models and toned body ideals.

So how do young men react if they are sold a flight with a sexy rear and bikini “failure", or a slice of sausage with a lot of naked flesh?

Essentially, we have established in our advertising research that male reactions do not match the justice minister's ideas. Young men respond to advertising which uses sex and sexiness partly with arousal – sensual pleasure in the game of suggestion – and partly with irritation, since the advertisers assume that they will respond to the sexual stimulus like a mindless consumer or Pavlovian laboratory subject.

What we do not see in our research is that young men are acquiring a misogynist image of gender from the “sexist” advertising, which is where the justice minister is overestimating the power of the naked images. The younger generations of men are growing up in a world of gender equality. They don’t reduce women to sex objects, because they know that young women have an equal (if not better) education and are making careers for themselves to an equal extent. Men also want to cultivate their own sexiness, and catch up with women in this respect.

Aren’t advertisers just hurting themselves with sexist advertising?

Advertising research repeatedly shows that the simple formula “sex sells” is a thing of the past. Brands and products that can’t come up with anything better than mobilising quick arousal in the reptilian hind brain don’t get far in an advertising dialogue with the cortex.

Marketing learned decades ago that it’s a matter of stable customer relationships and particularly intensive response to customer needs which are really linked to aspects of product use. When the Alice telephone brand (now defunct) uses a half-naked model to advertise a change in rates, this isn’t a lasting effect. The same goes with sexual innuendo used to advertise food products.

This is another reason why we can leave it to the market’s self-regulation to dump flatly sexist or stupid and tasteless advertising on the landfill of advertising history.

Are we becoming a nanny state, and isn’t the state taking a serious wrong turn here?

The Ministry of Justice's proposal runs into serious problems once we look at its implementation. How are we supposed to judge what constitutes sexist advertising?

Does the ministry get to decide? Or will there be a new commission? If so, who chairs it? Will there be a sort of censorship board that advertisements have to be submitted to? And what’s wrong with the Press and Advertising Council?

If you think the ministry's proposal through, you’ll see that it ends at a paternalist state,

a nanny state in which our ministers protect citizens from all possible dangers. After the ban on smoking and the restrictions on gambling, we now see the limits on advertising for these. The ban on sexist advertising goes even further. Its new dimension is its indeterminate character, since ultimately there is no way to say where sexism enters the picture, or where a politically correct presentation of women stops. Orwell captured this in the idea of “thought crime", where any thought tending in the wrong direction is criminal.

It also seems that the nanny state is taking a major wrong turn. Instead of concerning itself with the basic functions of the state – security, infrastructure, integration – it’s taking on secondary protective responsibilities. Protection against sexist advertising seems to be just one of these secondary protective responsibilities, based on outdated ideologies.

(Thomas Ebenfeld, Dirk Ziems)

Dirk Ziems
Dirk Ziems ist Experte für tiefenpsychologisches Marketing und berät auf Basis von Markt-, Medien- und Kulturforschung weltweit Unternehmen und Konzerne in zahlreichen Branchen und Ländern. Als Mitbegründer der Global Research Boutique Concept M und der Marketingberatung Flying Elephant begleitet er Themen wie die Adaption von Erfolgsprodukten in neuen kulturellen Kontexten, das tiefe Verständnis neuer Konsumgenerationen in China und USA, die Transformation der Werbekommunikation in der neuen digitalen Medienwelt oder die Neuorientierung der Brands in Post-Corona-Zeiten. Dirk Ziems ist auch als Gastdozent an verschiedenen Universitäten tätig.

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