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Europe Takes Aim at Sexual Stereotyping in Ads

In Madison Avenue’s mind’s eye, women are still preternaturally obsessed with the cleanliness of their kitchen floors, while men ruminate constantly about which shaving products will render them more attractive to the opposite sex.

The European Parliament has set out to change this. Last week, the legislature voted 504 to 110 to scold advertisers for “sexual stereotyping,” adopting a nonbinding report that seeks to prod the industry to change the way it depicts men and women.

The lawmakers’ ire has many targets, from a print ad for Dolce & Gabbana (which had a woman in spike heels pinned to the ground and surrounded by sweaty men in tight jeans) to Mr. Clean, the 1950s advertising icon whose muscular physique might imply that only a strong man is powerful enough to tackle dirt.

Clearly, the advertising industry is not quaking in its boots. But the move, however laughable as a gesture of political correctness, may well provoke some debate among agency executives and their clients about the messages they are sending. (That said, the people who approved the gender-stereotype measure are the same ones who suggested that all car advertisements should have warning labels because of the toxic impact of gas fumes.)

Such debate could well lead to legally binding legislation, said Mary Honeyball, a British lawmaker and a member of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, which developed the report.

“What I think it might do is encourage the industry in member states of Europe to improve,” she said. “The report was passed by a big majority, and so there’s obviously recognition that there is a need to look at this. There is unacceptable stereotyping.”

The concern, according to the committee report, is that stereotypes in advertising can “straitjacket women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles that are often degrading, humiliating and dumbed-down for both sexes.”

The vote by Parliament reflects a growing uneasiness in Europe about how advertisers and big business promote their products. In France, the Senate is considering a proposal — already passed in the National Assembly — to levy fines of up to 45,000 euros, or $64,000, for advertisements that promote or incite anorexia. The European Parliament took note of the issue during its debate last week, calling on advertisers “to consider carefully their use of extremely thin women to advertise products.”

Last year, the Spanish government weighed in, demanding that Dolce & Gabbana pull its “fantasy rape” advertisement in a country where headlines about violence against women are all too common. The designers at the fashion house, based in Milan, relented, but not before observing in the Italian press that Spain was “a bit behind the times” and that the ads were artistic in nature. But then Italian lawmakers started to fume about the images, and the ads were also withdrawn in Italy.

With its vote, the European Parliament is raising alarms not only about provocative images, but also about some that consumers might consider benign. Ms. Honeyball’s rogues’ gallery includes an ad for LG Electronics featuring the muscular backside of a naked man who is facing a washing machine (a spot that won an advertising award in Cannes). But it also includes a gray-suited businessman in a Lufthansa ad, and a Miele campaign that features a woman, potholder in hand, fawning over a cake in an oven.

Malte Lohan, a spokesman for the World Federation of Advertisers, a trade association representing 55 national advertiser associations on five continents, said that his group was wary that the debate “about the alleged role of advertising in gender discrimination keeps coming again and again.”

“The essential concern that we have is that it is mixing two different things: gender stereotyping with discrimination and degrading images,” Mr. Lohan said. “That’s a real problem because stereotypes are not necessarily something that are bad. They can be totally harmless or quite entertaining.”

He said the industry supported efforts to eliminate degrading or discriminatory images of women. The association, however, has not taken a position on the debate over extremely thin women. “That’s still a fairly recent issue,” he said. “Before, advertisers were criticized for causing obesity rates to go up, and that’s being turned on its head.”

Eva-Britt Svensson, a Swedish member of Parliament and author of the report on advertising images, said that, at this point, legislators were pressing simply for self-regulation among advertisers. But she also suggested that consumers could act.

“If they have more information and awareness about the impact of gender stereotypes,” she said, ”they can start boycotting products.”


Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times. September 10, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.