Sexist Advertising, an (un)successful way of catching people’s attention

Sexist advertising is a relatively new concept for the Republic of Moldova. Defined by Article 11[1] of the Law on Advertising[2], following an amendment adopted in April 2016, the sexist advertising:

  1. shows a woman or a man as a sexual object, in humiliating, degrading or violent circumstances, and which offends human dignity;
  2. promotes sexist stereotypes for discriminatory purposes, while maintaining traditional perception of women as weak, vulnerable and dependent, with a lower social status.   

Article 364 of the Contravention Code of the Republic of Moldova provides for the failure to observe these provisions a fine of up to 90 c.u.[3] for individuals, up to 240 c.u. for people in position of accountability and up to 300 c.u. for legal entities. Also, a business entity shall stop broadcasting the ad or remove the latter so that it is no longer available to the public. 

What does the sexist advertising actually mean and how can we identify it?

Some might say that the definition given by the current law is too vague and can be misinterpreted. The reality, though, is quite different. Sexist advertising can be identified by answering a few questions:

  • What is the purpose of placing an individual in an advertising? Is it to show how to use a product or an advertised service or simply to catch the attention?
  • If we switch the roles (we replace a man with a woman or vice versa, in exactly the same situation), would it seem to be out of the ordinary?
  • Does it promote a stereotype according to which women behave in a certain way, and men in another way?

Although sexism in advertising can refer to all genders, women are the ones most affected.

The objectification – when an individual is limited to an object, i.e. treated as a decoration in order to catch the attention, is the most frequent sexist advertising means. One can notice this especially in case of women who appear in advertisements. Hence, if someone wants to advertise a door, a woman will appear for sure in a lascivious position; or if someone wants to advertise some pasta, then the latter will, for sure, be paced on a woman’s body, etc.

As far as nudity in advertising goes, the Moldovan law doesn’t explicitly prohibit it. Thus, the nudes can be used if this is relevant for presenting a service or a product. For instance, making pictures with a person in underwear to advertise the product is not considered sexism because the person’s body has a direct attribution to it, which in most cases cannot be advertised in other ways. On the other side, when the person who advertises the underwear is pictured in provocative positions with sexual connotations (a woman in underwear displaying her breasts or laying on the bed/floor with the legs up in the air, etc.), it is considered to be an objectification of the person who is used as a sexual tool with the aim to attract more attention on the product.

The same goes with the advertising of body care products (shower gel). It’s not considered to be sexism when a naked person takes a shower in order to advertise a product. But when the same producer broadcasts repeatedly advertisings picturing a naked woman in the shower and a man in a bathrobe, we can call it sexist advertising. In this situation, the woman is treated differently from the man, as a lesser being who can undress without scruples, and her body is used not only to advertise, but also to attract the attention of potential buyers. It is also considered to be sexist the advertising in which a woman lays on the shower floor.

Another feature of sexist advertising is treating an individual in a humiliating or degrading way because of his/her gender. The individual is presented as not being able to think or act. For example, this category includes the advertising that makes fun of blond women (‘even a blonde would deal with it’) or those types of commercials that advertise medicines and show a man as a human being unable to take care of himself or of his children, and his wife comes like a life saver and gives him medicines.

The sexist advertising affects human dignity, women’s dignity being denigrated most of the times. These situations occur when women appear as individuals who sell themselves for money or for certain material goods that (only) men own. Or when they are portrayed as amoral and slutty beings, who spend their time consuming alcohol and having fun. 

One of the most serious forms of sexist advertising is the one that promotes violence. The advertising that has elements of gender-based violence widely portrays men who use their bodies to be aggressive, while the women – as being obedient[4]. Sometimes women are shown smiling when alluding to the assault, and in other cases they simply obey to the latter. These approaches correlate the violence with the sensuality.

In advertising, women are always the ones who are pictured in the kitchen, doing the dishes, cooking for the family and being responsible for cleaning the house. At first sight, it seems that such advertising wouldn’t picture the women as being inferior to men. However, if we analyse more widely the situations picturing men (in suit, working for big companies, responsible of decision making) and women (in the kitchen, taking care of the children and of the house), the model showed transposes into the real life and everyone expects women to stay at home and men to bring money and make decisions. 

What to do if founding an advertising which seems sexist to us?

Everyone who feels offended by an advertising they consider to be sexist can write a complaint. The Competition Council is the authority empowered to exercise state control and self-regulation in the field of advertising.

Those who feel offended can also submit a complaint to the Council for Preventing and Eliminating Discrimination and Ensuring Equality. This Council examines the complaint and expresses its opinion on the advertising’s sexist nature. If it finds that the advertising is sexist, the Council for Preventing and Eliminating Discrimination and Ensuring Equality sends the case to the Competition Council for review, according to the legal procedure.

Since 2017, i.e. after amending the law by introducing the concept of sexist advertising and determining the sanctions, the Council has received a number of complaints. Thus, until 2017, the Council examined five complaints about advertising’s sexist nature, while in 2017 this number reached 32.

Also, the Council’s members can take note about certain publicity like in case of the message used by a driving school in a commercial[5] containing the following message: ‘... the only one State Driving School from Chisinau that offers you the best training for all the categories: cars, trucks, motorcycles, minibuses. Cheap and effective. (...) Theoretical plus practical classes, plus the certificate of completion of the courses. Easy, even for blond women’. The Council found gender-based discrimination and sanctioned both the economic operator and the radio station that broadcast the spot, and established that they were responsible for the systematic dissemination of stereotypes about women via a media like the radio.

Since April 2016 (when legal amendments were adopted) and until July 2018, the Competition Council drawn up 16 protocols on contraventions concerning sexist advertising.

The individual held liable may challenge the decision concerning the sanction. However, this does not exempt him/her from his/her obligation to remove the material. The notification of the Court does not cease the enforcement of the Competition Council’s order or decision, except for the case when the Court issues a judgment ceasing the enforcement of the latter.

[1] Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK, ‘Think of me as evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising’, (2010) p. 41.

[2] Law No 1227 of 27 June 1997, published in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Moldova No 67-68 of 16.10.1997

[3] Conventional unit – MDL 50,00 or about EUR 2,48

[4] (Malamuth and Briere, 1986)

[5] http://www.bizlaw.md/2016/09/07/sexismul-in-publicitate-care-sunt-regulile-si-ce-sanctiuni-se-aplica-pentru-nerespectarea-lor/

Elena Rățoi has been an activist in the field of promoting gender equality for about five years. Since 2014 she has been working as Program Officer at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). Previously, she worked as PR Manager and Project Assistant at the Association ‘MOTIVATIE’ of Moldova. Also, she coordinated the implementation of two projects aiming at civic involvement of young people and participated in various volunteering activities. She is the author of the Guidelines ‘Sexism in Advertising: Concepts, Definitions, Examples’. Elena graduated from the Law Faculty of the Moldova State University and also holds a Masters’ degree in Civil Law.