Every year there must be hundreds of dissertations being written by undergraduate design students about the portrayal of women in advertising, all referencing the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and Adbusters along the way. And you could spend a long time trawling the Internet for articles about sex being used to sell commercial products. I’ve become a little used to such arguments. However, I never expected to see sex being used to sell integrated office systems. That is, until I turned a corner in Norwich the other day to be confronted by this image on the back of a van:
I was dumbfounded and genuinely taken aback for a few seconds. I could start a basic National Diploma level Media Studies deconstruction at this point, mentioning the see-through blouse and the provocative pointing of the metaphor, sorry, I mean pen. I haven’t worked in many offices over the years, but I suspect this attire would receive raised eyebrows in the average insurance office. It certainly would in the Art and Design department staff-room I frequent in my day job.
Just as I was getting over the shock of this image, thinking how utterly inappropriate and offensive it was, I was confronted with this sight on the side of the van:
I can only imagine the conversation going on here, as the guy stares at the woman’s breasts and she leans provocatively over his desk. I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite so ridiculous on the side of a van before—I almost expected a slow 1970s groove to start playing as the woman in the photograph dropped her pen and reached under the table to ‘pick it up’!
I find it incredible that neither the designers who proposed this, nor the people at Mayday thought this wouldn’t be objectionable. The objectification of women in advertising and throughout the media is endemic in our society. However, the image on this van, for a photocopying business of all things, could not only be seen as an example of how sexist imagery has become a typical state of affairs in our everyday, but also how accepting and unchallenging many have become to such things. Without wanting to sound like some 1980s anarcho-feminist tubthumping kill-joy, the jolt of seeing this atrocious piece of applied graphics in a high street has convinced me more than ever that design criticism needs to challenge such things a little more often. It can’t be left to the undergraduates who still feel passionate enough about such things to write a critical dissertation only they and their lecturers will read.