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Sex Sells, But at What Price?

Image from dailymail.co.uk


The average person sees around 6000 images per day. Billboards, sponsored social media posts, shop brands, magazines, bus stops – advertising is everywhere. But what many people may not realise is how much sexism they are being fed through these images every single day. From reinforcing stereotypes to overtly sexualising women, sexist advertising is nothing new (see image above). And we’ve heard why time and time again; “sex sells”. But I’m calling bullsh*t.

The majority of consumers are women, but according to Bec Brideson of Venus Comms, 91% women feel misunderstood by marketers. This just shows how out of touch the advertising industry is with its audience. The reason for this is because, like many industries, it is dominated by men and even more to the point by sexist attitudes. Within the industry itself 42% women working in advertising have been sexually harassed. It’s no wonder that the content being produced is laced with sexism when the industry mirrors the same attitudes internally. But it’s time to call out sexist advertising once and for all.

Sexism in advertising come in many different forms. Only using female actors in ads for laundry and cleaning products is sexist. Only using male actors for outdoor or sporting products is sexist. Creating unrealistic body expectations by photoshopping models is sexist. Using nudity or over-sexualised images to sell a product that is completely unrelated to sex is sexist (see example from clothing brand American Apparel below). Glamorising assault or male dominance through advertising is SEXIST. These types of advertisements are not only offensive, but they are also incredibly dangerous. They reinforce gender stereotypes, perpetuate the objectification of women and, in some cases, promote violence against women. The amount of advertising we consume daily normalises these harmful attitudes and beliefs.

Ad from clothing brand American Apparel, image from esquire.com


Public spaces are being saturated with these harmful images.
Plan International, a global organisation working towards equality, is leading the way in creating safer spaces for women and girls in Australia. They recently partnered with CrowdSpot to create the “Free to Be” project; a mapping tool providing people with the opportunity to share their stories and experiences around Melbourne. People could mark ‘happy places’ on the map – areas of the city where they felt safe, and ‘sad’ spots – areas where people felt unsafe or actively tried to avoid. Dr Pamela Salen, researcher and lecturer at Monash University, used this map in her own research and found that sexist advertising in public places actually perpetuates public sexual harassment. Salen also found that male or aggressive brand names were more common in the ‘sad’ (or unsafe) spots on the map. The results from the ‘Free to Be’ project are currently being shared with decision makers and city planners so that they can create more ‘happy places’.

One in two Australian women have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime. This is a huge issue in our country and has a lot to do with the rampant levels of sexism that are normalised in our society. By practicing the outdated method of “sex sells” (sex in this case meaning the sexualisation of women), the advertising industry has a lot to answer for. Highly sexualised and sometimes pornographic images of women and children have become so mainstream that they are accepted as part of our daily lives. Just another one of the 6000 images consumed. But this sends the message that it is okay to objectify and perpetuate violence against women in real life. This is unacceptable.

Dolce & Gabbana ad promoting violence against women, image from scoopwhoop.com


So, how can we change this situation for the better?

Plan International have also written an open letter to Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, asking the Victorian Government to ban sexist advertising. You can join in the campaign by signing the open letter here. To accompany this letter they have also created the ‘Sexist Ad Challenge’ – finding the top 10 most sexist ads in Australia today. You can participate in the challenge with these four simple steps:

Step 1: Find sexist ad
Step 2: Take photo of sexist ad
Step 3: Post ad to social media (Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) using the hashtag #SexistAdChallenge
Step 4: Stay tuned. Plan International will announce the ‘winners’ on 12 December 2017

Reporting these harmful ads is a big step in eliminating them all together. You can also do this on social media by clicking the ‘report’ button on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts. You can also raise awareness by starting conversations with your friends, peers and family about the harms of sexist advertising. Collectively, we can make a difference.


If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault here is a list of support services across Australia.

If you need help, support or just someone to talk to click here.


Maddy Crehan

Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.

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