Claire Beale on Advertising: Do we really need the Eurocrats to save us from Dita's lovely bottom?

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The Independent Online

Dita Von Teese has a beautiful bottom. I know this (give or take the flex of the airbrusher's art) because I've seen it several times in the business media over the last week, delicately circled by a froth of lacey string. She knows how to pack a 32C as well. And it's all starring in a new ad campaign for Wonderbra, see below.

Now I only mention it because it has some bearing on what the European Parliament's been chewing its nails over recently. Buttocks, breasts, the objectification of the female form, that sort of thing.

Last week the EP voted to adopt the principles of a report "on how marketing and advertising affect equality between women and men". Do read it (if you're lucky you'll find it at www.europarl.europa.eu). It's the legislative equivalent of one of those We Love the 70s programmes, a real trip down time warp lane.

Here's a flavour. "Gender stereotyping in advertising straightjackets women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles that are often degrading, humiliating and dumbed-down for both sexes". Or "gender stereotyping in advertising echoes the unequal distribution of gender power". And all this is used by the ad industry "for the financial gain of big business".

So, as of last week, the EP is determined to do something about it. It's planning educational initiatives to combat such stereotyping, it's calling on member states to monitor campaigns and remove "stereotyped and degrading" images of women from advertising, and it wants to introduce regulatory measures to "promote balanced and diverse portrayals of women by the media".

The intent is laudable and in some European countries this sort of, ahem, nannying might be more necessary than it is here. But in the UK the EP's pronouncement is sure to be seen as yet another example of fatuous bureaucratic meddling in an advertising industry that has had far too much of that over the last few years.

The report does hit at some fundamental truths about adland. Does advertising deal in stereotypes? Of course. When you've only got 30 seconds or a glance to make an impact on a broad group of people you don't have time to invent a new language. You tap into common themes, ideas and images to create an instant connection.

Yes, brave, better advertising might try to pervert the norms, to arrest attention by delivering the unexpected, by challenging stereotypes. But, even then, the assumed starting point is still cliché and convention.

Does advertising create these cliches? The European Parliament argues that the norms created by gender stereotypes in advertising objectify people and that this plays a key role in how we each build our identity and what we consider to be "normal".

Advertising certainly holds a mirror up to culture and society, and in so doing reinforces what it sees. But the notion that advertising is creating gender stereotypes is too simplistic. The issues are much wider and the "culprits" far older and far more diverse. Take Dita and her bottom. Her Wonderbra range hasn't launched yet, but the images have spiced the media for a few weeks now because a colourful picture of a sexy woman in her bra and pants makes news pages look brighter, attracts attention.

The truth is that women have been presented as objects, as homemakers, as whores since well before Caxton. Once again, advertising is simply the easiest (and most easily regulated) target for pressure groups.

But really, this whole tangled debate ignores one vital point: the very real shift in power towards consumers. When it comes to advertising and marketing, the consumer is in control now. If an advertiser riles our sensibilities, employs crass stereotypes, uses sexist imagery then we have the power to complain like never before. And not just to the advertising standards regulators, but direct to the brands themselves and to our peers through blogs, forums, corporate websites.

The web is a fearsomely potent weapon for consumer fight-back. Only a few weeks back, furore on the internet prompted Mars to withdraw a supposedly homophobic Snickers ad. And consider the plight of Land Rover. Google the car marque you'll quickly find haveyoursay.com, a blog written by a disgruntled Discovery owner that documents all his problems with the car. In the end Land Rover was forced very publicly to give him his money back, though the bill for doing so was nothing compared to what this blog has probably cost Land Rover.

Meanwhile, our advertising regulators already pay careful attention to any breaches of taste and decency in ads, though admittedly they probably wouldn't baulk at images of women cooking or men washing cars. But then neither would most of us. In the end (in the UK at least) one's left wondering quite what the point of the EP's report is and why its focus is so sharply on the advertising industry.

By the by, after half-an-hour's careful trawling of blogs and comment pages, I could only find expressions of delight about Wonderbra's saucy pictures of Ms Von Teese.

As female marketers muse upon the possible implications of the EP decision on their own advertising, they might also like to consider the gender inequalities that exist at the sharp end of marketing.

According to a new salary survey from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, female marketing directors now earn 18 per cent less than their male counterparts, up from a 10 per cent gap last year.

Worse, marketers across the board earn less than their colleagues in other functions such as human resources and sales. Though marketing directors earn a respectable £75,000, marketing graduates earn on average 8.2 per cent less than colleagues in other functions. This does nothing to attract the brightest juniors into the profession or raise the status of the marketing role within companies.

Marketing – and by implication advertising – is in danger of slipping even further down the corporate food chain if these sort of pay disparities continue. With pressures on advertising and marketing budgets tougher than they have been for many years, there's never been a more important time to demonstrate the value of marketing and the need to invest in it across the board.

Back to women again: adland is set to lose one of its few female chiefs when Alison Burns, the head of JWT, the UK's fifth-largest ad agency, returns to New York early next year.

Burns has had a tough time at JWT, joining an agency in turmoil back in 2006. Since then she has brought some stability and a new creative impetus to the company, though the flashier markers of success (significant new business, creative awards) have so far proved elusive. It's a shame she's off before having the chance to prove if she can do more. But it's also a shame that UK advertising is losing a rare female leader.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign

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