Sweden not going to ban sexist ads after all

// 28 April 2008

The Swedish government has abandoned plans to ban sexist advertising, reports the BBC.

“This law would be against freedom of speech, which is protected by the constitution,” said Malin Engstedt, spokesperson for Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni.

“The minister is not convinced that this law would improve things,” she added.

While I’m not generally an enthusiast for banning things here, there and everywhere, it is naive to approach advertising as free expression, not a multi-million (krona, in this case) industry, using supposedly sophisticated, and generally ruthless, all-pervasive, persuasion techniques.

An advert is not a play. It is not a piece of literature. It is not a newspaper or a book or a speech. Restricting advertising is more akin to regulating the marketplace than stamping out freedom of speech.

The Swedish lawmakers are making the mistake of treating an industry like a citizen.

However, banning adverts that use sexism to sell product is not a complete solution, as the BBC story notes:

But in Denmark, where similar guidelines have been in place since 1993, some firms are ready to exploit the additional free publicity they will get from being highlighted.

Denmark’s advertising ombudsman recounts a recent example of a male underwear company which was forced to withdraw adverts portraying women in low-paid jobs, after outrage from several trade unions.

One ad in the series showed a nurse lying on a bed with the male underpants covering her face, implying that she had just had sex with a patient.

“People in these different occupations already have problems with sexual discrimination,” says ombudsman Henrik Oe. “You cannot play on the male fantasy that a patient can have sex with a nurse just to sell a product.”

This is not an argument against a ban, or restrictions on sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, transphobic advertising, all of which I’d fully support. I’m just noting that it’s depressing: and demonstrates the nature of the industry (ready to knowingly break the rules, designing an advert that’s as offensive as possible, just to get more brand awareness).

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