Media: Pleased? Actually, no, not really: Are we getting too much sex? Meg Carter reports on current advertising and below, Ruth Picardie looks at women's magazines

Playtex and Gossard unleashed more than they bargained for with their latest high-profile advertising campaigns. Apart from breathing new life into the bra war, the two companies have rekindled criticism of the portrayal of women in advertising forcing advertisers, agencies and regulators to reassess where they should draw the line.

In the Playtex Wonderbra posters, the lingerie-clad supermodel Eva Herzigova features alongside one-liners such as: 'Hello boys', 'Look me in the eyes and tell me that you love me' and 'Or are you just pleased to see me?'

Meanwhile, in the television ad for the rival bra company Gossard, a glamorous woman chats up a man. She is wearing an Ultrabra - 'designed for a more impressive cleavage'. When a second woman interrupts, the first one leans over and pulls wads of tissue from her rival's bosom, exposing the latter as a flat- chested pretender.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which handles complaints mainly about posters, print and cinema advertising, has received 53 complaints about Wonderbra, but it has ruled the ad is not offensive. Ultrabra has provoked 20 complaints to the TV regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which says the situation remains 'under review'. Action depends on the strength of feeling and specific nature of complaints, the ITC's spokesman, James Conway, explains. 'The crux is whether or not it is perceived to be in breach of the (advertising) code. If it is not, yet still causes offence, we might still take it up with the agency and advertiser.'

These ads are not isolated examples. Accusations of sexism continue to rise. Last year complaints to the ASA about the portrayal of women rose from 180 to 536 with 111 upheld - more than twice the number in 1992 - while the total number of complaints fell 10 per cent.

The ITC reports a similar pattern, although it maintains that complaints about offensive ads - which covers sexism - were down, in part a reflection of the disproportionately large number generated by a commercial for Vespre panty- liners in 1992. Last year the ITC received 952 complaints for offensiveness about 241 ads.

Both regulators maintain that only a small number of ads account for the bulk of complaints. The Vauxhall Corsa launch campaign featuring supermodels - including Naomi Campbell clad in black leather and brandishing a whip - provoked 59 complaints to the ITC; the posters 24. And this despite claims from Vauxhall's ad agency, Lowe Howard-Spink, that the ads were designed to 'empower' women and break a negative stereotype. No complaints were upheld although Campbell's commercial was relegated to a post-watershed slot.

Meanwhile, a recent campaign for Linn Hi Fi resulted in 72 complaints to the ASA about an ad featuring a woman beside the words: 'She's terrific in bed. She's witty, intelligent and makes her own pasta. She doesn't have a Linn Hi Fi. But her sister does, and she's the one I married.' These complaints were upheld.

This increase in complaints can be put down to a number of factors. Too few women in senior positions within agencies may be one: at last week's Newspaper Publishers Association press advertising awards, only one of the 66 creative people honoured was a woman.

Yet a growing number of the controversial ads - including Linn Hi Fi - were written by women. At Playtex's advertising agency, TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie, Susanna Hailstone, account director, says the Wonderbra ads feature a positive image pitched to 'sassy, confident women' - a fact overlooked by the campaign's critics.

Instead, agencies point to a growing willingness to complain. 'People are more aware of where and how to complain. A lot of people have nothing better to do,' says Stevie Spring, managing director at the ad agency Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley. 'Then there's the opposition - rival advertisers can always stage shock-horror stories.'

Ms Spring says she found both bra campaigns humorous and fun. But she did object to the Linn Hi Fi ad. 'It offends a large number of people to whom it is addressed - any ad that does this is fundamentally a bad ad,' she says.

M T Rainey, managing partner of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, believes it's more to do with sex than sexism. 'Advertising is increasingly seen as something everyone should have a view on. What changes is when it is in vogue to make it an issue,' she says. 'Do we want sexually alluring images prominent in the high street? That's another issue.'

Meanwhile, Maryann Barone, chief executive of The Chelsea Partnership, condemns Playtex and Gossard for missing the point. ' 'Hello Boys' isn't talking to a woman and it isn't a woman talking to a man. It's boys talking to boys,' she says. And of Ultrabra, Ms Barone adds: 'No one has had to stuff their bra with tissue for 25 years - it is irrelevant.'

With such multiplicity of views, how do agencies - and their regulators - decide how far the creative teams can go? Creatives will always push their luck, says Uisdean Maclean, head of copy clearance at the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC). 'Some agencies may well be aware of what you can and cannot do under current regulations, but there is a constant probing of the edges.'

It is up to the BACC to approve all television and radio scripts before transmission - about 31,000 a year. Only if an ad has caused offence after it has been broadcast can the ITC recommend withdrawal. Drawing the line between acceptable and offensive is becoming increasingly difficult, Mr Maclean concedes. 'The limits do not remain static. Some attitudes become more liberal, others less so.'

Past precedent must be set against constant monitoring of changing attitudes. 'The general public is increasingly less tolerant of negative stereotyping,' he adds. 'In today's climate people are more willing to complain and find offence.'

Caroline Crawford, ASA spokeswoman, agrees. 'What we have found the public objects to is irrelevant or gratuitous portrayal of women, or sleazy or inept innuendo,' she adds. Nor do women like advertisers to exploit their fears - one reason why a commercial for Cellnet, where a woman driver breaks down alone on a dark road, proved unpopular.

Images of strong, independent women in control of their lives remain scarce, despite agencies' claims to the contrary. For every Kenco campaign - where the Colombian coffee-grower tells the woman he had better clear her order with her boss, and she points out that he just has - there are numerous homemakers earnestly discussing household cleaning products.

Attempts at irony often backfire. Posters for the Volkswagen Vento featuring the female bodybuilder Kimberley-Anne were regarded by many as demeaning.

In the new climate of complaint, no one is safe. Another Volkswagen ad, which registered well with women, showed a woman just divorced. She is strong, independent yet vulnerable as she wipes a tear from her eye before driving off into a new life. But this ad generated the highest number of complaints to the ITC - for trivialising divorce.

(Photograph omitted)

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