Titter ye not

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.

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2 comments
  1. Sue Ronaldson said:

    Hi Nigel,
    I agree in part with your comments on the generic advertising technique employed here but sex and childhood innocence have been used to sell things and as bargaining tools since there were people on the earth. I expect that even hunter gatherers used sex to hold on to the stronger group members to ensure survival or the innocence of the child to allay violence in others or encourage protection from predators. Nowadays sex may be more visually displayed as a selling mechanism than perhaps in previous times (I’m not sure about that though), but the image here could be construed as showing the man as weak, dominated by the women. The image may be seen as an insult to the female sex but it also degrades and insults men. Human beings use sex as a weapon all the time. Why does it offend so many people to see it used in this way, in public instead of in private and away from the gaze of others; one is as offensive as the other. The private perception is what leads to the public perception.
    I agree, it is a typically boring advert using the most basic human instinct to draw attention to the words on the van relaying an ambiguous message about ‘integrated office systems’ (what are they anyway?). It is probably time to get away from the objectification of women as an idea. This concept in of itself decries some patriarchal ideology. The man seems to me to be as much an object, more so actually, because the woman is calling the shots; the man is simply a victim of his raging ‘hormones’.
    I think that one of the problems society faces is that when people are bombarded with so many images all the time they don’t even see them anymore and so many designers have had their imaginations stunted by ‘what is out there’. Change the minds of the audience and that will change the minds of the advertisers; and vice versa. If people believe in equality for men and women; in democracy, respect and humanity they will demonstrate it in their advertising. Ideas change the world and they generally start at the beginning. There are many ways to toss in the seed of change which spring from ideas. Maybe we need to see things differently and look at the problem from the other end. Why do people feel the need to use sex to sell? Is it because it is a fundamental human instict that pervades all out thoughts and if it is how can the need be met in a different way or do people need to alter their expectations and place sexuality in a different place in their minds; guarded perhaps like a fragile flower. But would it become a secret thing and would that be more harmful in the end? Certainly without democracy I think it would. A key thing to remember I think is that people of different cultures have expectations. Do we want to meet them or shatter them?
    Sue Ronaldson

  2. jne said:

    I completely agree with you! I find it especially shocking that this all went by without offending a single person until it was smack in your face on a van. Design criticism in the work place and not solely confined to academia, can really rub so many people the wrong way– especially because design in the work place is so centered around ego and office politics. I have a hard time imagining women sitting in on these meetings discussing this concept, designing the ads and so forth, and not feeling offended- but I also can easily imagine them feeling embarrassed about speaking up. Getting people to pay attention is a great first step– just so crazy it has to happen in 2012? Feels a little late to the game if you ask me.

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