Sexually explicit ads arouse the nation's anger

New survey by the Advertising Standards Authority shows complaints have more than trebled

Ads have never been so sexist. The British public is making ever-higher numbers of complaints about the gratuitous depiction of women's bodies on billboards and in magazines, according to new figures from the Advertising Standards Authority.

Ads have never been so sexist. The British public is making ever-higher numbers of complaints about the gratuitous depiction of women's bodies on billboards and in magazines, according to new figures from the Advertising Standards Authority.

In a survey that confirms the bottom and the breast as the UK's two most ubiquitous marketing tools, the ASA has revealed that the number of advertisements criticised as "sexist" has more than trebled since the mid-1990s.

By the end of June this year, 668 complaints about 135 ads had already been received - 186 of them over the current easyJet poster featuring a pair of bulging breasts under the strapline "Discover weapons of mass distraction".

Though the ASA last week declined to uphold the easyJet complaints, to the indignation of some media commentators, it acknowledges that there is a problem. It points out that in 1995, the heyday of "laddism", there were 400 complaints about the depiction of women - while the number of offending ads was a mere 99.

The current epidemic of ads featuring scantily clad girls is not confined solely to the usual suspects, such as those for cars, underwear or lager. The ASA has just censured a magazine ad for Veet hair remover which features a close-up of a woman kneeling beside a swimming pool with what looks like pubic hair emerging from her bikini bottoms. On closer inspection, the hair is revealed to be the ponytails of two other women standing behind her.

Even respected cultural institutions are not immune. The National Railway Museum in York is being criticised for its poster of a woman's rear with her G-string visible over the top of her jeans in an effort to recruit more young people as volunteers. Dirty handprints are splayed on her behind, and the photo is accompanied by the phrase "Get down and dirty" and the innuendo-riddled caption "Clean out one of our steamy locos' hot fireboxes".

The Royal Academy has also recently flirted with a Benny Hill-type approach to self-promotion. An invitation sent to journalists to publicise this year's Summer Exhibition takes the form of a saucy postcard-style photo montage by the artist David Mach featuring a curvaceous blonde with her skirt whipped up to reveal a pair of skimpy knickers.

Opinion is divided over the reasons for the resurgence of Carry On-style imagery. What perplexes many observers is the fact that, far from reflecting the chauvinistic fantasies of unreconstructed males, the majority of today's most criticised campaigns are devised, at least in part, by women.

Beatrix Campbell, the feminist author and academic, said: "I think several things are going on. There are certain ads that are a confident, laddish re-statement of chauvinism - even when aimed at women - but there is also another type that is much more knowing. It's allegedly 'ironic', but actually isn't at all. The problem lies with men - not individual men, but a cultural history of masculinity and the belief that women are always to be associated with what men desire."

Commenting on the increasing involvement of female advertising executives, she added: "There's a real paradox at the moment: you see lots of young women who are really audacious and 'out there', and that's great. However, as we are in a context where many women see feminism as something that's old-fashioned, it has become difficult for them to identify themselves with it and, as a result, they sometimes enlist as lieutenants of the enemy."

John Tylee, associate editor of Campaign magazine, believes the explanation is more prosaic. Whatever progress has been made elsewhere in the media, he says, advertising agencies remain largely the preserves of unreconstructed "lads" - whether of the male or female variety.

"One of the reasons why there's always been un-PC advertising is actually to do with the make-up of the agency creative departments," he said. "They're very macho places - it's all about pool tables and pub lunches. For many women, you almost have to become an honorary lad to get on. There's a sense of 'I can do lager ads as well as you can'."

While the ASA figures show a steady upward climb in the number of perceivedly "sexist" ads from 1995 to 2003, it is unlikely that the final tally of complaints for 2003 will outstrip 2000, which proved something of a "freak" year. The infamous photo of the model Sophie Dahl reclining naked on a poster for Opium perfume attracted 972 complaints - more than half of the overall total for the year.

An ASA spokeswoman said: "Complaints about taste and decency tend to generate headlines but in reality reflect only a quarter of the complaints we receive.

"The classic Wonderbra 'Hello boys' poster was ground-breaking in its sheer 'in your face' approach and impact. This type of approach continues to appear regularly, particularly in trade press publications targeting industries such as plumbing, building and computer software. If an ad has been well targeted it shouldn't cause offence to its audience."

Adland's bulging boxful of irony

Peter York

"You've come a long way baby" said the US ads for Virginia Slims in the early 1970s. In fact we've all come a long way. When you look at the way advertising in the 1960s and 1970s showed the war between men and women, and gender stereotyping, there's absolutely no comparison.

Early television ads werepathetically short of nudity, laddish jokes, girly men, unnatural sex and everything else that makes modern British advertising so bold and dynamic.

The creators of those hopeless old ads never really had to worry about gender stereotyping. It was perfectly clear what women did and what men wanted. Women weren't all out working and initiating divorces and driving their own Ford Fiestas then. They hadn't yet found out male mysteries such as "the office", "motorway manners" or strippers.

Ad agencies have to be mindful of the real outer and inner lives of the increasingly fragmented groups they're targeting. Advertising responds to changes in society; it never actually leads them. But advertising's creative mockneys - concerned always to seem younger and less middle class then they really are - are caught on a very difficult fork indeed on the whole question of sexist advertising. And that's only the girls.

They daren't get their clients rattled, but at heart they believe that to get worked up about sexism is to adopt what ad-folk see as a complete stylistic taboo - seriousness. They see the complainants as hopelessly humourless and dated people who simply don't understand irony. Their defence is to say that the viewers are miles ahead of the feminist Mrs Grundys (a bit of controversy goes down a treat, providing the ad isn't actually pulled).

In their world, where everyone talks about breasts all the time - buying new ones, in particular - in such a weirdly distanced way how, they would argue, can "weapons of mass distraction" possibly be offensive? Young women, they say, are much too open, much too confident about sex and their bodies.

Their other argument is that they're just as happy to objectivise men and their bodies, too. It's all moved on from the pathetic man/silly daddy stuff of the 1980s and 1990s, to the point of bulging boxes and pert buttocks in men's underwear and aftershave advertising and, oddly, pharmaceutical and back-pain commercials (they all show Chippendale types in St Sebastian poses now). In adland, politics is so not us.

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