I don’t ask this question to imply there isn’t a problem. I think there is. So would most people. But what exactly is it?
On Wednesday, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled against an advert from the clothing retailer Missguided (which had appeared on London Underground posters):
Because the ad objectified women, we concluded that [it] was likely to cause serious offence.
If an advert features an attractive model, he or she is not there to be ignored — but to be viewed alongside, and associated with, the product. Using one object of desire to sell another cannot be anything but objectifying. However, no one’s seriously suggesting that we ban the use of models altogether.
The real issue, of course, is sexualisation. In their ruling, the ASA judge that “the sexually suggestive styling and pose would be seen as presenting women as sexual objects.”
Why does bringing sex into it make the difference between tolerable and intolerable objectification? Well, one could defer to social norms about what sex should be for. However, that might imply traditional or even religious standards of morality — not something that government agencies go for these days.
There’s a less contentious narrative around choice and empowerment. The argument is that the objectification of women for public consumption warps the way in which all women and girls are viewed by others (especially men) thus compromising their individual autonomy and security.
But if this is true of a clothing advert, how much truer is it of pornography? If it is necessary to control the relatively tame images that the ASA deals with, why is so little done about the incomparably more graphic and demeaning material available to any man, woman or child with a smartphone?
One could say that there’s a key distinction between the two: advertising is part of a shared public sphere over which one has little control; pornography is viewed privately — so if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.
However, objectification is about the consequences of what goes into other people’s heads, not your own. As such, the case for regulation is at least as strong for porn as it is for advertising.