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|Copyright © 2005
|Quiet Mountain Essays
|Advertising and the Exploitation of Female Sexuality
Chineze J. Onyejekwe
This paper analyzes the role that the media, both print and electronic, play in constructing the exploitation of
female sexuality to sell products especially in advertising. The role of media conglomerates particularly as regards
the ’profit motive’ is also analyzed. The link between media advertising and its influence on young people especially
women is discussed. Efforts at tackling this problem are also discussed.
Recently, there was much excitement in the United States over the anti-indecency drive in the media. This
move gained more prominence after pop singer Janet Jackson exposed a breast on national television during the
Super Bowl XXXVIII (02/01/04) halftime performance. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission
has been looking into complaints about TV programmes that may have crossed the “decency line.”
Interestingly, Peter Bowes (BBC News, 4 February 2004) commented, that there was more naked flesh on
advertisements during the entire game (Super Bowl) than in the Jackson-Timberlake stunt itself.
At the same time, however, sex advertising is nothing new but an age-old phenomenon. The voyeuristic
portrayals of women as things not only to be looked at but also to be desired have always been used by some
magazines in order to maximize sales. Examples include Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. Recently, due to
technological advancements, advertising is all over the place - in newspapers, magazines, billboards, pavements,
sides of buses, radio, television, and on the Internet. The power of advertising lies in persuasion and its ability to
influence people’s behavior. This ability has been enhanced by globalization.
Globalization and the advancement in new media technologies are transforming how sexuality is viewed and
treated around the world. The result is the beaming of homogeneous images in the media and the tendency
towards increased cultural and social uniformity. This is exemplified by the way films and glitzy
advertisements have helped the spread of sales of products. The result can be seen in discriminatory advertising,
and the spread of imposed images of femininity and female roles.
A recent survey in the United Kingdom, for example, shows that about two thirds of women thought that
advertisers go too far in using sex to sell product. They found explicit billboard advertisements more offensive
(Media and Gender Monitor Issue 8). Recent French Reports also highlight the promotion of sexual values in
advertisements that increasingly show degrading portrayals of women with overtones of violence, sexual
domination and bestiality (Media and Gender Monitor 2002, Issue 10). A classic example is the Barbette brand
cooking cream advertisement in France that shows a headless torso of a woman with the caption “I do what I
want with her” (Rosella Melanson 2001).
This exploitation of female sexuality in advertising has negative consequences for women. Images of thin
models seen, for example, in TV and magazine advertisements, and good-looking muscular men appear daily
in magazines, films and television. Thanks to beauty pageants such as “Miss World” and “Miss Universe”, as
well as locally organized beauty pageants, teenage girls now define beauty by the shape and size of their bodies
with the impression that being skinnier is sexier. More young men are also turning to drugs such as steroids to
help build muscle strength. This unrealistic importance given to body image has been blamed for the poor self-
esteem and unhappiness among ordinary people, particularly the youth. While doctors do not agree on the
extent of this problem, eating disorders such as anorexia have been affecting more young people (Cooper 1997).
Great concern has been expressed about the role of the media especially as an agent of socialization. Critics
often blame the policy of pandering to the audience’s desires and prurient tastes on the competition between
media corporations for the advertisement dollar. Advertising is very important to profit-driven media
conglomerates more interested in delivering viewers to advertisers than in serving the needs of the public.
In her article titled: “Real Women Elude Ad-driven Magazines” Sheila Gibbons (Women’s Enews, 5 July 2003)
points out that advertising pays the lion's share of publishing costs, and without it, a magazine just can't make
it. Consequently, dependent on the advertisement dollar and faced with fierce competition, media corporations
resort to the policy of pandering to the audience’s desires and prurient tastes.
Today, the media industry is worth billions of dollars. Examples of such corporations include, General Motors
Corporation, the world’s largest company that now sells more graphic sex films every year than Larry Flynt,
owner of the Hustler empire; DirecTV, a subsidiary of General Motors; EchoStar Communications Corporation;
AT&T Corporation, America’s biggest communications company; and Cybervision, a film production company
based in Cape Town, South Africa. Armed with new technology, these corporations are increasingly able to
spend more money on sophisticated ways to sell their products. This situation has exacerbated media
homogenization of women’s images, resulting in the link between pornography and advertising becoming
increasingly blurred ((Maria del Nevo 2000). The consequences, del Nevo points out, are that: “References to
obscenity and indecency cited in many codes of conduct or self-regulatory guidelines are no longer applicable.
The general observation is that the depiction of women as objects of desire in advertising effects gender relations
and society’s attitudes towards women and women’s sexuality” (Patrick Stewart (Star Trek actor) cited by
Jeremy Lovell, The Independent Online Newspaper [IOL], 5 March 2004) Realizing the enormous problems
women face in this regard, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995 identified the
continued projection of negative and degrading images of women as a critical area of concern in the Platform of
Action. Yet, five years after Beijing, some of the same concerns still remain (Shivdas 2000).
Since Janet Jackson’s stunt with Justin Timberlake, and under pressure to crack down on the growing coarseness
of television and radio broadcasts by parents groups and lawmakers, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) has ramped up its efforts to pursue complaints and issue more penalties against media indecency (Aliza
Dichter, World Association for Christian Communication [WACC], and 26 February 2004). On 18th March
2004, the United States communications regulators went directly after profanity on television and radio
broadcasts as part of a campaign to crack down on growing coarseness on the air (Jeremy Pelofsky, REUTERS,
19 March 2004). Earlier on, Canada had to engender its advertising codes in order to address this problem.
With particular reference to the 1994 gender portrayal guidelines of the Canadian code of advertising. Avoiding
the inappropriate use or exploitation of female sexuality is one of the key commitments of such clauses (Media
Awareness Network, October 2002).
Formulating and applying ethical codes for the communications media and for advertising might go a long
way in promoting respect and common good. This is particularly so for television, which beams homogeneous
images right into people’s homes and around the world. However, confronting the negative effects of the new
media on women requires focusing on the entire spectrum of media representations that limit, demean or
degrade women. This includes the Internet.
Internet advertising is growing bigger by the day and the medium is greatly increasing the influence of media
corporations, and the opportunity for pornography considered by many feminists, as degrading to women.
Cooper, Alison (1997) Media Power. New York: Franklin Watts.
Del Nevo, Maria (2000) “Developing Gender Sensitive Communication Policies.” Media Development, Vol.
XLVII, Issue 3.
Media and Gender Monitor (Issue 8, 2002) “The Power of Advertising.”
__________ (Issue 10, 2002) “France Mulls Ban on Sexist Advertising.”
Media Awareness Network (2002) “Gender Portrayal Guidelines (1994).”
Melanson, Rosella (2001) “You Haven’t Come a Long Way, Barbette.” Available on the Internet at:
Shivdas, Meena (2004) “Women: Media Portrayal of Violence against Women.”
|Dr. Onyejekwe is an Independent Scholar currently working on a book on women and small enterprise development in the
developing world. When it will be ready remains unknown. Her publications include:
1. (September 2004) "The Interrelationship Between Gender-based Violence and HIV/AIDS in South Africa." Journal of
International Women's Studies (JIWS), Vol. 6, #1, pp. 34-40.
2. (November 2004) "Trafficking in Women Migrants: Issues of Concern in South Asia." Pakistan Journal of Women's
Studies: Alam-e-Niswan (PJWS), Vol. 11, #1, pp. 95-105.
3. (December 2004) "The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Women's Empowerment: An
Overview." Journal of Asian Women's Studies (JAWS), Vol. 13, pp. 9-18.
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