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If ‘sex sells’, it should be regulated

In recent years there has been a spate of suicides associated with the failure to live up to this unrealistic physical ideal: overwhelmingly, the victims have been young teenagers, often prone to eating disorders, depression and delusions concerning their physical appearance

16 June 2016, 7:20am
The male gaze: Uno Malta’s infamous ‘Game On’ advert is clearly one-sided
The male gaze: Uno Malta’s infamous ‘Game On’ advert is clearly one-sided
In the realm of advertising (and, by extension, any form of PR) it has long been observed that “sex sells”.

One need only switch on one’s TV or buy any magazine, to witness the truth of that statement. It has become customary over the years to use sexualised images of attractive (mostly female) models – all chosen on the basis of their looks – to sell anything from furniture, to cars, to ice cream, to various brands of pasta, and so on.

Nor is this tendency limited only to the world of advertising. Music videos and celebrity culture in general have increasingly embraced the global fixation with bodily perfection. We seem to be living in an age which exerts abnormally high pressure on people to agonise over their physical appearance: often overlooking the fact that for many, having ‘the perfect body’ is not a realistic possibility.

Inevitably, this gives rise to tensions and social issues. For the world we live in is also highly sensitised to issues of equality, tolerance and acceptance. This sits uneasily with the stereotype of the female body as window-dressing for commercial products… a stereotype which, strangely, many commercial enterprises seem to think is still acceptable in this day and age.

Following the release of two highly contentious adverts by Numero Uno, the nightclub has been the target of a negative online backlash, with many taking to social media to complain that the offending adverts are yet another example of how media objectifies women. 

This may well have been part of the intention: another truism of corporate advertising is that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Either way, the issue itself raises valid questions that cannot so easily be brushed aside.

In a statement issued last week, the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) voiced concerns about a perceived gender imbalance in local media. “The pervasive sexualisation of women and girls in media representations reinforces the stereotype that a woman’s value is determined by her physical appearance and that woman’s primary role is that of pleasing men. This correlates with unequal relations in society,” the NCPE said in its statement.

The NCPE’s concerns are echoed by all corresponding commissions in other countries… and even by psychiatrists concerned with the detrimental effect of the subliminal message on vulnerable adolescents.

But women are not the only victims, nowadays men are as objectified as often as women in advertising campaigns. 

Women and men should be able to live in an environment which doesn’t constantly demean them or present an unrealistic image of the perfect body.

In recent years there has been a spate of suicides associated with the failure to live up to this unrealistic physical ideal: overwhelmingly, the victims have been young teenagers, often as not prone to eating disorders, depression and delusions concerning their physical appearance.

Naturally one cannot lay the blame for such tragedies at any one advertisement’s door: taken together, however, there is a strong case that the over-sexualisation of today’s culture may have detrimental, possibly life-threatening consequences.

It is, in brief, not just a question of social equality. There is also social responsibility in the balance.

The implications become clearer when one talks of other areas apart from sex. There is now broad scientific consensus that cigarettes are harmful to health: governments the world over have therefore taken the necessary steps to ban the advertising of tobacco products.

Given that the primary objective here, too, is to ‘sell’, surely it is reasonable to question the seeming lack of any corresponding legal infrastructure to regulate another aspect many find offensive, and which also poses health risks.

To put it another way: if ‘sex sells’, in the sense outlined above… then the sale should be subject to regulatory restrictions along the lines of any other transaction.

Whether such restrictions should extend to an outright ban is however debatable. Such legislation is notoriously difficult to enact and enforce, as the precise definition of ‘sexual exploitation’ remains open to interpretation.

But this does not justify the current free-for-all. If there is an institution that should take the lead on this issue, it is the Broadcasting Authority: even if limited mainly to TV. It seems strange that a BA that would follow up complaints about Emny Bezzina’s colourful language, would ignore complaints coming from another national authority, over a far more contentious issue.

The BA cannot, however, regulate the print or even online media. For that, other structures are needed… but what is needed more urgently is a national discussion on the issue.

Ideally, we should be looking into legislative ways of protecting vulnerable people without unduly shackling freedom of expression. It is a complex matter to be discussed in detail… but the discussion must at least get off the ground.

Meanwhile we should also be looking at an educational approach. Young people need support to be more confident about their bodies and their life chances. More needs to be done in schools and elsewhere to show that there is more to life than having a beautiful body.

Only then can we start working towards a culture which focuses on young people’s talents, rather than their curves or abs.

DealToday
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