Advertising and the consumption of women: How sexist images in advertising have become sexualised

This presentation was given during the ‘Acting against sexist advertisement in public spaces’ panel in the European Parliament in Brussels on the 6th of March 2019. The panel was part of the wider event ‘S&D Gender Equality Youth Forum’. The speech has been edited with minor modifications and additions.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Images are powerful conveyors of meanings. Their power derives from their ability to condense messages. For example, on a very basic level we can think of traffic signs that use simple graphic symbols to relay directional instructions. Images are also powerful because they are accessible to all. ‘Seeing comes before words’ writes the art critic John Berger, whose work on ways of seeing I heavily rely upon[i]. Finally, images are powerful because they can spread messages quickly and extensively: they are efficient. Historically, Christian iconography has been used to that effect. To fully assess images’ power, we can think of a more contemporary example of the social media platform Instagram, with only imaged content, supplanting the text-based Facebook.

Relational images: viewer–viewed

An image however is necessarily relational. On its own, an image has no power. To be effective an image must be seen. The first relation that brings an image to life is the one between the viewer and the image that is viewed itself.

So, here is my first question. In our societies, who – which sex – is on the viewer side? Who – which sex – is contained inside the image? In other words, who looks and who is being looked at? Who is active and who is passive?

In the words of John Berger:

Men act.

Women appear.[ii]

This first relation between the person looking and the image looked at is sexed and hierarchical. What is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying about this is its implication: if images require an external gaze to come alive, and if women are the ones trapped inside images and men the ones looking, then we women can only acquire existence if we are seen by men. To be present in this world we need to be looked at. Inevitably, the male gaze becomes our own.

Men look.
[We] women watch [ourselves] being looked at.[iii]

I cannot think of any other images that encapsulates this idea better than the above. A man browses through a French magazine targeted at women called ELLE, literally ‘she’. Behind him, on the back of a bus lurks a giant ad for the magazine dedicated to men lui, literally ‘he’. On both covers, the same images of naked women, posing lasciviously. Fittingly, it is a man perusing the women’s magazine. Fittingly, the images are the same in both magazines. Whether it is a man or woman reading the magazine, it makes no difference: the gaze is already male in both cases.

Relational images: creator–created

Now, an image also entails a relation on another level. If the image needs a viewer to make sense, it obviously first necessitates a creator to come to existence: the creator-created relationship. My second set of questions is thus the following: in our societies, who is behind the canvas and who is posing? Who is behind the camera and turning the person in front literally into an object, a photography? For a long time, men have built —are in fact still building— the narrative on women. This narrative serves a specific purpose: the establishment of a distorting mirror, as Virginia Woolf explains[iv]. Men look at women, but what they see is a distorted version of themselves where, after having built women as inferior to them, they appear twice the size they actually are.

In this picture Mr Puff Daddy (né Sean John Combs) stands gloriously in the middle of the room as a painter. He is surrounded by naked women, presumably Renaissance-style models.

And yet: all over the room we see self-portraits of Mr Daddy. When he looks at the women, the rapper sees his amplified self. One of the women is even holding the infamous Woolfian mirror that allows the singer to see himself as some sort of artistic genius.

Images as conveyors of sexed hierarchies

Images are relational. They require both an external participant to acquire meaning and a creator to exist. In both cases the relationship is hierarchical and sexed: men shape women, men look at women; active versus passive.

The imbalance of power in the production and consumption of images however is not new. As a matter of fact, John Berger based much of his work on classic European oil painting. Neither does imagery can fully take into account the specificity of images created for advertisement. The latter actively try to attract the gaze of the bystander. To do so, the advertising industry uses women. To understand why we need to unravel all the way back to the burgeoning of consumer culture and the parallel development of sexist advertising.

The sexist origins of advertising

Women as objects, objects as women: Playboy and the teaching of women-object consumption

The sociologist Gail Dines, whose analysis informed much of this second part of the presentation, traces the origin of the two – consumer culture and sexist advertising – to Playboy[v]. The periodical first published in 1953 was not your typical sexist magazine. It did not abide by the simplistic rulebook permeating the popular culture of the time of female housewives and male breadwinners. Instead, it turned the logic of prostitution whereby women and girls are turned into objects to sexually use and abuse into an imagery.

If the magazine soon became the utmost exemplification of Berger’s theories, it was also a wonderful tool for the development of post-war consumer culture. You know how to consume women, we’ll teach you how to consume objects: thus was the implicit message of the magazine. Playboy did not just over(t)ly sexualise women, it also sexualized objects. From the desk to buy, to the shoes to wear and the food to eat, Playboy made mass consumption as attractive as the women it displayed to teach a whole generation of young men who had been deprived of material abundance how to spend it. As such, Playboy was a complete lifestyle magazine that systematically identified women and objects to the point where they became one.

All this was more than 70 years ago. In this much more recent advertisement titled ‘The ultimate attraction’, with whom is the man having sex with? Is it the car? Or it the woman? Same difference.

The woman and the car have been so conflated that, like Playboy magazine did in its heydays, they have become one.

This is an ad for an online clothing company Pretty Little Thing that is widely advertised in the London underground. What does the ‘thing’ in Pretty Little Thing refer to? Does it refer to the dress or to the woman? Same difference.

I explicitly mention the London underground because its rules on sexist advertising are exceptionally stringent. And yet, this company systematically passes through the net. Why?

You can’t hurt an object: Desensitisation to violence

Everything I have mentioned so far will remain quite theoretical and abstract if I do not dive into the serious, tangible consequences of sexist advertisement. Why after all, should we care about mere images?

Primo Levi explains that what makes large-scale violence possible is the rendering of a human being so Other, that violence perpetrated against them is not perceived as such and that the bystanders who witness it do not object to it. The ones committing the violence do not feel remorse, the witnesses do not object. Is there a better way of Othering than turning a human being into an object? Than turning a woman into a piece of photography, a car, a skirt?

We are so used to the objectification of women that we barely blink an eye when we see the images I have shown. They do not strike us as objectifying: we just see a product being sold, no longer the woman sold in the process too. Desensitisation is an essential vehicle of violence. If we can’t even recognise the violence in the images we are looking at, how can we possible expect to fare any better in real life?

This image is a perfect exemplification of Primo Levi’s argument. In the 2017 edition of Miss Peru, instead of saying their bust size, contestants gave figures of femicide – the murder of women for being women. Rest assured that in the end the women were still rewarded solely on their looks. The paradox should be obvious by now. The objectifying male looking of women that beauty pageants are based on is an integral part of the culture that facilitates said femicides. By objectifying women, it renders violence against us possible: the male perpetrators do not have to feel they are hurting a real human being but disposing of a personal belonging. You can’t hurt an object. If a woman is an object to be looked at you can’t really hurt her either. Is there not after all an extreme leniency towards male violence against women in our culture and judicial system?

Sexualised advertising: The trickle-down effect of pornography on adverts

What I have said so far about advertising and its role in desensitisation to violence however does not entirely solve the problem. For if advertising has been sexist for a while, it has not always been sexualised the way it is now. To understand contemporary advertising better we must take another step back to look at the most misogynistic imagery in our societies: pornography. This is far from a fanciful digression; in fact, not talking about it while trying to tackle sexist advertising would be tantamount to placing security on the front door but leaving the back door unchecked.

The creation of Playboy marked the beginning of mass-scale industrial pornography. Today, videos of women forced to vomit have become the norm in pornographic material. As consumers of pornography have been progressively bored with the initial material at hand, pornographers had to increase the violence in order to maintain and entertain their consumer base. At the point we are in, because of the objectifying processes I have described, few of us fully grasp the sheer violence – torture even – that pornographic production entails. 

With the escalation in violence, a trickle-down effect of pornography took place. The content of pornography emigrated to mass media. You can think of this also as an outlet store: what was pornography last season, is the tv show of this season. The scenes in the extremely popular Game of Thrones are the ones seen in the pornography of 30 years ago. The naked women Playboy started with – that had to be hidden inside the magazine and could not be displayed on the cover – are now openly hung on the back of buses.

Advertisements, already recipients of the trickle-down effect, also follow the same logic as pornography: they have to do more to be seen. It needs to be more shocking, more provocative, more boundary-pushing. Advertisers always try to outdo what they previously did, what the competitors are doing. Contrary to popular belief though, it is not sex that sells; it is women that are sold.  Women are degraded further and further, the mirror is distorted further and further to carry on the consumption of both the woman and the product that is being sold, that are now one and the same.

We have seen the power of images in conveying information. We have seen how sexual hierarchy in imagery constructs women as inferior to men. If we couple these features of pictures with the specific form of imagery that is advertising that must attract the gaze, we obtain advertising that sell objects the way women are sold in the industry of prostitution. Contemporary sexualised advertising utilises the same outbidding strategies to get people looking and buying that pornographers use. The ultimate message is that women and objects are interchangeable. The dangerous implication of this is that violent misogyny is turned invisible. Instead of being violence against women, it becomes ill-use or disposal of objects. What has an object have to do after all apart from fulfilling its functions? In the 1950s those functions were largely domestic, today they are sexual. If the consumer is not satisfied, he is pleased to do as he wishes with the product.

To be able to see violence for what it is again, we must be aware of these links. And when in doubt about whether this is all really there, do a simple exercise: take an advert and reverse the sexes on display. The most likely effect is epiphanic laughter.

Following the presentation, the panel received numerous questions from the public. Not all received answers and the few that were deserve further elaboration. Here are some of those.

Q. If pornography is violent against women why not advocate for the development of feminist pornography?

A. First of all, the claim that women should copy male behaviour, simply bandwagon on sexist practices is on and of itself sexist, placing men as the standard and women as latecomers. Second, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, we do not discuss how to improve the conditions of child abuse, we try to eliminate it. Why is that not a reflex when it comes to pornography? Third of all, I have mentioned earlier the inevitable escalation in violence that has taken place since the development of mass-scale pornography. In order to keep its consumers, so-called feminist pornography would have to either become more aggressive or perish. Finally, the key problem I have tried to highlight is how we have become oblivious to misogynistic violence. How can we rest assured that women are not hurt – and that we react when women are – if the understanding of what constitutes harm has radically shifted?

Q. What is your view on ‘sex work’?

A. Prostitution is neither sex nor work. There is a contradiction in the combination of terms: either an activity is work and there is money involved and the state must intervene, or it is sex and there is no money. Contrary to any job, prostitution involves the complete access to another human being. If it were to be considered a job, laws on sexual harassment would immediately become obsolete. The sexual relation in prostitution would not take place if there was no money involved: it is constrained by money, not desired by the woman involved. Prostitution is a form of rape. If the fact that the man pays the woman for the encounter is considered to be sufficient not to see prostitution as rape, then the only definition of rape becomes the absence of money, wiping out any protection of sexual integrity.

Q. You have talked a lot about the sexualisation of women in advertising, but I increasingly see men being sexualised. I personally do not feel offended by that and maybe other women are not offended by sexist advertising either.

A. While the issue of taking offence appears to be popular in public discourse, offence should not form the basis of our politics. The question of offence also individualises a collective problem since offence is a subjective feeling unique to each person. What if the feeling is not ‘offence’ but rather anger, exhaustion, powerlessness? Why did ‘offence’ prevail? In any case, this is not just a matter of you and me, ‘Do we like these pictures? yes or no’. This is about the reality that the one half of humanity that is systematically beaten, raped and murdered by the other half of humanity is put on display in a vulnerable, seductive, passive, reified position for the same half of humanity that is responsible for said crimes. This is not a coincidence.

Mentioning the few cases where men are presented as sexy is disingenuous: it is a pedantic move obliterating factual evidence. There are also important questions to ask about the advertisements you are mentioning. How are the men presented? Are they surrounded by even more naked women? Are they intended for a male or female audience? Do the men appear strong or weak? How would a woman appear if she were taking the same pose? I highly doubt that a Lynx ad is as objectifying to men the way a Tom Ford ad objectifies women.

Q. Some models, one being in the pictures you showed, claim that such images empower them, what do you reply to that?

A. Do you often see Jean-Claude Juncker posing in knickers and sock-holders in order to throw the weight of the European Union on the global stage? Does Donald Trump have to care about the shininess of his hair before appearing in public? How many naked photos of Jeff Bezos have you seen? Does Roger Lynch, the CEO of Condé Nast that owns Vogue, flaunt his undies in front of the camera?

What does nudity mean in societies that are always dressed? And bear in mind that we are not talking of individuals who spontaneously remove their clothes, but rather one sex (the male artistic genius) undressing the other (the female muse). In Latin, stripping of the goods or spoliation and stripping of the clothes share the same root. Again, this is not a coincidence[vi].

The answer to many questions often lays in more questions.

Do people who effectively hold power, either financial, political or cultural, pose naked? Do the people that pose naked belong to the category (read: sex) of people that holds power? How do victims of female genital mutilation benefit from women undressed in posters selling yogurts?


[i] Berger, John (1962) Ways of Seeing, Penguin, p. 8.

[ii] Ibidem, p. 46.

[iii] Ibidem

[iv] Woolf, V., A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1929. ‘Women have served all those centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man as twice its natural size.’ (p.30, retrieved from http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/PikliNatalia/Virginia_Woolf_-_A_Room_of_Ones_Own.pdf)

[v] Dines, G., Pornland : How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, Beacon Press, 2010.

[vi] See also John Berger’s distinction between nakedness and nudity: ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as anobject in order to become a nude.’ (p. 54).


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