With the portrayal of sexuality in advertising a topical subject in UCD as of late, Natasha Murtagh explores the different responses each gender receives
Earlier this year, the L&H removed posters put up for their ‘Sex before Marriage’ debate. A photo of a young woman in rather racy lingerie was replaced with a more conservative picture of a wedded couple. The decision was made by the auditor of the society, Christine Simpson, who states that the posters were changed at the society’s own discretion and that “there were no complaints”. But would this poster have been taken down if it had been a scantily-clad man, or would it have slipped under the radar? It seems that there is huge controversy over any advertising campaign that portrays women in a provocative manner, yet when it is a man it is almost taboo to show dissent.
For Christine, the gender of the model is unimportant, and would not have altered her decision to pull the posters, although she does feel that issues of sexuality are good for creating discussion. “I feel there is a difference between selling sex and encouraging people to debate the issues behind sexuality. If such ads encourage debate, I consider this to be a positive thing,” she comments, adding that advertising must be balanced with a need to avoid offending people. “As a debating society, we want to encourage our members to challenge their preconceived notions, to question and to voice their opinions.”
The use of sexuality to create debate is an idea that is also employed at a national level. In 2010 Hunky Dorys released their ‘rugby’ ad campaign and received a shocking three hundred complaints at the beginning of the year. The advertisement was criticised by both men and women for being sexist, exploitative and inappropriate. According to The Rape Crisis Network “the posters add to attitudes and behaviour that make Ireland a place where the casual and everyday sexual assault of women is permitted and unchallenged.” The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) demanded that the Hunky Dorys billboard poster showing a woman in a very low-cut top with the caption ‘are you staring at my crisps,’ be removed and banned from further display.
The embroilment over these advertisements occupied the pages of nearly every newspaper in Ireland and the UK during the upheaval. This year Hunky Dorys launched a similar campaign representing GAA players, which received a different reaction from the public. Briege McAtee, the business development manager at the Irish Times explains that “the communications director of the GAA, Lisa Clancy, asked all of her members not to retort on the campaign, even when asked to make a statement on the issue, and she was right to do that.” If the GAA showed no concern for the advertisement, it meant Hunky Dorys wouldn’t receive as much PR attention and therefore, opportunity for the public to attack.
However, not all sexually-charged advertisements create as much controversy. For example, the equally revealing Nestlé Aero Bubbles advert, which showed the almost entirely naked model Jason Lewis enjoying the chocolate treats, aired on television with few complaints. The presence of topless male models outside a number of Hollister shops, including the branch in Dundrum Shopping Centre, was met with the same apathy. Had these been female models standing in bikinis, it is far more likely that the promotion effort would have soon been shut down.
A Dolce and Gabbana advert also exploited the male form. “The semi-naked man in the Y-fronts definitely sparked a reaction with men, I remember Ray D’Arcy discussing it on his radio show,” McAtee remarks. However, not nearly as many people complained, and the ad continues to air on TV.
No matter what the difference in reactions, it seems that nudity is an effective form of advertising. The Aero ad received a great deal of good publicity and a company representative explained that “the ad is a fun and tongue in cheek way of explaining why Aero’s bubbles create such a unique molten chocolate experience […] we are confident this will be the most alluring ad to hit the airwaves for a long time.” Largo Foods Company experienced similar positive effects. This year they continued to release their racy images for Hunky Dorys crisps and have been rewarded with an impressive brand growth of €1.5 million over the past year. Despite the barrage of criticism they endured, it was clearly worth riding out the storm.
However, to say that ‘sex sells’ is to over-simplify the issue. The tendency of the exploitation of the female form to cause greater offence than that of the male is something which requires further consideration. Are women more easily offended by the sexualisation of their own form or is modern Irish society still uncomfortable with public displays of female sexuality? Seemingly shallow advertisements pose serious questions about social gender inequality in Ireland, as well as our attitude towards the association of non-sexual products with overtly sexual connotations. Some of us are outraged by the sight of scantily-clad models, others offended by a gender imbalance in modern marketing, and some are simply amused or aroused by explicitly sexualised adverts. Analysing a sexy advert is relatively straight-forward; deciphering the public’s response however, is a far more complicated task. Sex certainly sells, but only if it’s how we like it.