House of Commons speech on sexualisation in advertising

Sexualised imagery in advertising has gone so far it needs to be controlled by statutory regulation

Speech by Elizabeth Willmott Harrop, Monday 9 July 2012, House of Commons, London SW1

The report Public Attitudes Towards Outdoor Advertising[1] asked “how likely are you to be offended” by a range of advertisements, focusing on sexualised imagery.

Responses were graded from ‘very offensive’ to ‘not at all offensive’. The ASA, which is required to prohibit advertisements causing “serious or widespread offence”[2] concluded from the results that it is drawing the right line on sexual imagery in outdoor advertising[3].

Offensive vs appropriate

For me however, the crux of the report is not in the statistics, but in the use of the term offensive.

In a world where new technologies have normalised the distribution of explicit personal photos

in a world where fly on the wall television hopes to facilitate live sex and is considered frivolous entertainment

in a world where sexual violence and drug addiction are glamorised to become mainstream song lyrics and images in coffee table reading

In a world where a child’s sexuality education is informed by depictions of sexual aggression and anal sex from pornography

In such a world the limits of offense are high and wide, and using it as a standard opens a flood gate of unwelcome material into our material world. Where is our sense not of offence, but of the appropriate?

I will describe 6 contemporary advertisements (see below for images):

  • A National Institute of Carpet and Floorlayers ad depicts a woman in a see through black lace dress, lying on the floor with the words “Wanted, professional layers!”
  • A Juicy Couture perfume ad shows an adolescent girl sitting on a bed, see through net skirt, off the shoulder top, legs apart.
  • A Miss Sixty ad, model lying on her side, naked other than high shoes and tiny denim shorts, her legs apart and buttock raised.
  • A Viktor and Rolf perfume ad with a naked model, gauze over her face, black ribbon around her breasts and body emulating bondage.
  • At train stations you can currently see posters with a Barbie style topless woman, the strapline asks “Fame, money, power. What price would you pay?” The implication being prostitution.
  • Easyjet magazine – in every seat pocket – has a swimsuit ad, the model with sexually suggestive expression and pose, tugging on her bikini bottoms.

The age of female models in many such advertisements is ambiguous and sits between adulthood and childhood, defined as under 18 by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[4].

Seeing is believing. We are far more accepting of the truth and integrity of an image than of discourse. What is considered inoffensive according to research can still show women and girls objectified and sexualised to the detriment of all.


According to the European Parliament[5], I quote:

“Advertising and marketing create culture rather than just reflect it, our concepts of gender being socially constructed and advertisements helping us construct them… gender stereotyping in advertising straitjackets women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles that are often degrading and humiliating.”

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women which oversees the women’s rights convention CEDAW[6] has registered its concern with stereotyped media portrayals of women in the UK[7].

The UK government responded saying it “does not seek to interfere in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish”.[8] That response is not good enough.

Self-regulation by the advertising industry can give banned advertisements a barrage of further publicity after their initial airing and offers no significant financial or legal sanctions. The ads then remain on the internet, albeit not on the advertisers own website.

The ASA recently banned ads by American Apparel on the basis they were “exploitative and inappropriately sexualised young women”[9]. When will we get to a point where such ads do not appear in the first place? That is effective regulation.

Human rights

The UN CEDAW committee also noted that the UK’s stereotyped media portrayals – of which sexualised imagery in advertising forms a part – “contribute to women’s disadvantaged position in a number of areas, including in the labour market”.

This is a human rights issue. Not the human right you might think of – the right to freedom of expression of advertisers – but rights such as to health, freedom from discrimination, and the right to be free from violence and abuse.[10]

  • Effects of girls’ exposure to sexually objectifying images include on development, self-esteem, physical, mental and sexual health, risk factors for early pregnancy and abortion, and future career success.[11]
  • Studies show that adults who view sexually objectifying images of women in mainstream media are more accepting of violence[12].
  • The rising number of children at risk of sexual exploitation in the UK is linked in part to overtly sexual content in the media. Sexualised behaviour in children, linked to sexualisation, is both an indicator and risk factor for child sexual exploitation.[13]

This is our world. I will continue to build a picture for you with more pieces of the jigsaw:

  • Children account for 34% of hospital stays for eating disorders[14]
  • By the age of 10, a third of children have been exposed to explicit pornography on the Internet[15]
  • More than a quarter of people think a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing[16].
  • Britain has the world’s third-highest proportion of teenagers who are sexually active at an early age[17] and the highest teenage birth and abortion rates in Western Europe[18]
  • Depictions of violence against teenage girls on television have risen 400 per cent in 5 years[19]
  • 280,000 teenage girls in the UK suffer from sexual assault believing it is an accepted part of a relationship or don’t know how to stop it[20]
  • It will take 70 more years before we have an equal number of women MPs and directors in the FTSE 100[21].

This is our world. It is a world I will not accept and it is a world I will try and change, piece by piece.


The good news is that for every piece of the jigsaw there is something we can do. I quote again from the European Parliament: “responsible advertising can … be a strong tool in challenging and tackling stereotypes”.

We have to force the advertising industry to be what it prides itself on being – creative. Being creative in exploring equitable, respectful and positive ways to represent gender, identity and youth.

I conclude that self-regulation is failing to control the objectification of women, the denigration of childhood through sexualised images of young people, and the affront to gendered identities, which advertisements continue to portray.

[1] Outdoor Media Centre and Credos

[2] See ASA{954CD8FC-9ABE-4A86-A2B5-EAC72C4C09AC}&ItemId={59208C79-1D18-43F4-A62F-20519AD95107}. However that criteria was not enough to ban a pornographic advertisement by Tom Ford in 2007 (see images below on page 4). For the Tom Ford ruling please see

[3] ASA

[4] Article 1

[5] European Parliament

[6] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

[7] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

[8] Home Office

[9] ASA

[10] See for example UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[11] Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

[12] Dr Linda Papadopoulos

[13] Barnados

[14] NHS


[16] Amnesty International

[17] Guardian

[18] FPA

[19] Papadopoulos op cit and Parent Television Council

[20] NSPCC

[21] Equality and Human Rights Commission

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