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Sex sells. But is it sustainable?

Back in February, I tried to predict the top sustainability issue of 2013. My guess – the ethical supply chain – has certainly been hitting headlines. But I didn’t come close to predicting another issue which seems to have been rising up everyone’s agenda this year.

In a word: sex.

So far this year, an online petition against bare breasts in The Sun newspaper has received over 100,000 signatures, and UK retailer The Co-op has introduced measures against “overt sexual images” in magazines. Shopping chains have been criticised for the “pornification” of high streets, Disney has come under fire for the sexualisation of cartoon characters and tech companies including Google and Microsoft have been called upon to block searches for illegal content.

Many of these campaigns cite the need to protect impressionable children from sexualised content. But they are more than just Mary Whitehouse-style moral crusades, or hysterical “Twitterstorms”.

It seems to me that these controversies are part of a bigger shift in opinion over how far corporate responsibility stretches. Companies are increasingly held responsible for all aspects of customers’ welfare, from product recycling to healthy eating. When it comes to sexual content, arguments such as “it’s up to consumers” and “it’s only irony!” are no longer enough. 

No More Page 3 campaigners at Legoland

No More Page 3 campaigners at Legoland. Source: The Guardian

Just as companies are targeted for sourcing from illegal loggers and unsafe factories, they are held responsible for implicitly supporting sexualised and sexist content. The No More Page 3 campaign against The Sun targeted toymaker Lego for advertising in the paper. At the even more unpleasant end of the spectrum, brands such as Nissan UK and WestHost pulled adverts from Facebook after they were shown appearing alongside pages containing supposedly humorous content endorsing rape and domestic violence created by the site’s users.

The lesson for businesses is clear. In the eyes of campaigners and increasingly the public, guilt by association is still guilt. Companies that fail to respond to concerns over sexual content risk more than just their family-friendly reputations – they are in danger of losing credibility as “sustainable” companies entirely. And that’s definitely not sexy.

Comments (3)

  1. Joanna Waters says:

    Erm, woops – I found this really interesting and got a bit carried away…

    Where to draw the line? Sexualised content in itself is not necessarily problematic, it’s when that context crosses the border into illegality, discrimination or victimisation. Sometimes it is obvious where that line is crossed, but often, especially in advertising, it’s a question of style and emphasis as much as it is of content. Much sexualised content used is unproblematic (though I’m sure some would counter me here) – for example, TV adverts for Lynx products, where the basic selling point is (roughly) “buy Lynx and you will get sex with many beautiful women”, which I’m sure some women see as objectifying them, but in fact I think manages to portray males as sex objects just as well as it does females, and does so tongue-in-cheek. See the recent Diet Coke ad, featuring a group of young women oggling a muscular man mowing the grass in a park, for an example of a product aimed at the female market which uses sex as a selling point – I raise that example simply to dispel arguments that it is only women who are portrayed as sexual objects (though I do feel that women suffer much more from this in the media – but that’s a different topic). Both these examples use sexual content implicitly, but in a way which, by and large, would not be considered unethical.

    Problems arise when a corporation is associated with explicit “beyond the watershed” sexual content which is legal but in some forms is discriminatory (eg. page 3 girls, non-illegal pornography), or illegal and violent sexual content (eg. child pornography, rape and other abuse – there was a Diesel jeans ad a few years ago that got banned for its use of gang-rape overtones).

    These are quite rightly types of content which, where legal, should be controlled, or in the case of illegal sexual content, be eradicated. I don’t think any legitimate corporation would argue otherwise. Corporations are excellent targets for campaigners against sex discrimination and in favour of the control of explicit, discriminatory and illegal sexual content – they are high profile and, if damage to their reputation is at stake, are in a powerful position with a powerful incentive to take action.

    But as the recent C of E/ Wonga story has highlighted, big organisations which outsource their investment management (as for C of E) or their marketing/advertising strategy (Lego) have trouble keeping track of precisely with what they become associated. And in the online environment it’s a minefield because of the way, for example on Facebook, adverts appear on a particular user’s feed, based on their browser history, age and gender etc. If Joe Bloggs likes violent sex content and has also been browsing online for a new car, it’s oh dear for Nissan.

    Really I think in that situation it is unfortunate for the company that gets blamed for its association, when that association is outside of its control. I wonder how Nissan weighs up the risk: value of sales made via Facebook advertisements (very high I should imagine), vs. value of potential custom lost due to negative association publicised in the media and by campaigners. I don’t know how those figures compare. I suppose it’s a risk inherent in online advertising via social media, and in having an advertisement strategy that fails to implement a 100% effective ethical screening, that you could get stung by negative association. The cynic in me says that probably in some cases, a corporation stands to lose more by pulling out of such advertisements than it does by negative association – in which case, there needs to be a strong incentive and a clear path if we are to expect corporations to take an ethical stance which may restrict their money-making. Big problem.

    Perhaps what I would do if I were a corporation attacked over such content is respond to campaigners and criticisms (where they are correct and reasonable) and ‘save face’ by joining in the ethical debate, seeing the media attention as a platform for presenting my admirable CSR policy (which, as an good business, I not only have already on paper but actually implement and improve upon in every aspect of my business (wink wink)), and using the power of my position as a large corporation to support/pressure the media corporations to exercise more effective control on illegal and discriminatory sexual content in their publications.

  2. Lauren McCarthy says:

    Great blog, echoes my thoughts on this earlier this year on our ICCSR blog on responsibility around body image. http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/betterbusiness/2013/01/09/still-avoiding-responsibility-business-and-body-image/
    I agree that there’s a shift in public perception happening around what responsibility is and isn’t, and a lot of this is being driven by social activism online.

  3. Martin Ashford says:

    Couple of comments around advertising.

    1. Oddly, I haven’t seen anyone asking why “Lads Mags” have escaped being classified with what the industry calls top-shelf titles. The answer is that publishers of these magazines have done all they can to prevent that happening because it would cut them off from mainstream advertising. Not only will many retailers not take top-shelf material, most mainstream advertisers won’t let their material go into them. What’s happening now with Co-Op etc is showing up how artificial that distinction is.

    Trouble is, the Lads Mag came into existence because there was pent up demand from advertisers to reach a young male audience, and historically that audience wasn’t mass-buying magazines (unlike young women). For a few years, publishers hit the gold mine by delivering the eyeballs that advertisers craved. But the good days are well and truly past, circulations have been nose-diving, and the escalating nipple-counts in these titles have been a sign of desperation. Move over Nuts, come in Men’s Health.

    2. The use of sex to attract eyeballs which in turn attract advertising dollars is one aspect of the messy relationship between advertising and editorial. Another, less talked about perhaps, is the subtle way in which editorial content gets biased towards providing a “platform” onto which ads can be sold. Ever wondered why Sunday Supplements years ago contained punchy photojournalism from war zones or other gritty realities, whereas now they’re full of pap? Simple: any editor running pictures of harsher realities will find the Ad Director sitting on his or her desk on Monday morning, with a blunt warning that “Our Advertisers don’t want their message to appear alongside this sort of thing”.

    So: should campaigners try to influence Editors or Advertisers? Actually, the answer is obvious: you bypass both of them and influence public opinion, because ultimately if the public votes with its feet then both editors and advertisers will follow. And, interestingly, I don’t think you need to win the battle for the “majority” of public opinion. Page 3 still attracts x millions of eager eyeballs every day. But if you can win a sufficiently vocal minority of opinion, in this age where well-orchestrated voices are using social and other online media so effectively to be heard, that’s probably enough to prompt real change.

    Sorry for going on – like Joanna I think this is a very interesting topic!

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