Not for sale

Sexism is rife in Lebanese commercials and billboards

Strong women like Serena Williams are changing the ad-game

They’re everywhere. Whether on the side column of that article you’re reading on your phone screen, on the billboards surrounding you on your morning commute or blaring out of your radios and TV screens. Advertisements are simply unavoidable.

These promotional messages often fade into the background, save for the memorable ones with a creatively delivered message. If we take a closer look at them, however, they reveal a lot about a country’s cultural and societal norms, and a lot about the evolution of the role and views of women in society.

Sex sells. Or does it?

Whether in a cleavage baring top and a sensual pout while clutching a men’s deodorant tube in her manicured hand, or seductively posing naked next to a car with only bits of paper to cover censorable parts, women’s bodies have long been exploited as marketing tools to entice male consumers into buying products that have nothing to do with these women’s bodies.

One of the earliest usages of sexual imagery to sell products dates back to 1885 when some United States tobacco companies inserted trading cards of sexually provocative women into cigarette packs. This advertising technique only grew in its frequency and boldness as advertisers attempted to continuously up the “shock factor” in an attempt to grab consumers’ attention.

Lebanese advertising agencies are no strangers to using erotic visuals in their creations, with one example being an ad promoting a cable company that projected logos of TV channels onto a woman’s cleavage. Another one, by a bags and accessories boutique, showed a woman with a bag over her head being strangled by a man. This ad unsurprisingly caused a considerable uproar and backlash when it first aired a few years ago.

Regional Luxury Director (MENA) of Mindshare, Ghada Hmedeh, recalls that when she returned to Lebanon from Dubai five years ago she was initially shocked at the way advertisements were using women. But, she says this is “happening everywhere and temptation is used as part of [the] ad.”

It seems this usage of sexual imagery in advertising is hard to shake off. Jihane Nasrallah, founder of Inhouse Communications Agency, believes “sex always sells and stopping that is unlikely.” She explains that media is a reflection of society and that advertisers’ primary role is to reach the consumers in their culture: “We are living in a male[-dominated] society and we have to talk to our consumers. So we have to talk their language to be able to sell, tell a story of a brand and build the long-term [brand loyalty], and that is why we do tailor-made communication for each market.”

[pullquote]Research showed that, while customers remembered the sexy images clearly, they had actually forgotten the brand behind the ads[/pullquote]

However, recently this age-old adage of “sex sells”, so coveted in the advertising world, has fallen under scrutiny and it seems not everyone subscribes to it anymore. Research undertaken by Ohio State University indicates that although sexual images in advertisements attract consumers’ attention, they may actually distract them from the commercial’s main message. The research shows that, while consumers remembered the sexy images clearly, they had actually forgotten the brand behind the advertisements.

Some corporations have taken note of these studies. Nada Abi Saleh, managing director at Leo Burnett, says that big brands have almost stopped relying on sensual images of women in their advertisements since it is an outdated technique which only appeals to baser instincts “creating a very superficial link between brands and their customers.”

The dutiful housewife and the pretty woman 

On the other end of the spectrum is the equally stereotypical image of the woman as a homemaker whose only goal is the happiness of her family, or the idea of a woman as someone who is solely preoccupied with her appearance, wanting to maintain a younger look to be accepted by society.

Commercials depicting a woman proudly discussing the superior quality of her laundry and thanking a certain detergent brand, or ones that show a woman beaming with pride as her husband compliments the meal she has been preparing all day, are common and reflect the value that cultural norms place on the role of the woman as wife and homemaker.

[pullquote]Countless studies have shown that such ads are damaging to young women’s self-esteem, often leading to disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, depression and even suicide[/pullquote]

Also common are the countless ads for skincare or beauty products which show an often digitally altered  woman with perfect skin and hair describing how a certain brand is not only responsible for her perfect appearance but has also in fact changed her life by making her look so attractive and young.

The effects of an ad

Not only are such commercials often completely lacking in creativity and taste, but they also place a lot of pressure on women to conform to these unrealistic standards that society places on them. Countless studies have shown that such ads are damaging to young women’s self-esteem, often leading to disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, depression and even suicide in extreme cases.

In Lebanon, we are exposed to a wide range of advertisements and, in turn, ways of objectifying women. Women are bombarded with advertisements depicting seemingly opposing messages; on the one hand they should aspire to be beautiful sex symbols who entice men with their promiscuous physical appearance, while on the other hand they are encouraged to be the doting, dutiful and reserved housewife.

Light at the end of the tunnel

The last 10 years have seen a significant increase in voices speaking out against advertisements that are deemed sexist. More and more women are challenging these stereotypes by engaging in activities that were traditionally considered ‘male’ and by pushing back against gendered tropes.

Since advertisements reflect culture, we are seeing more advertisements reflecting women’s strengths and encouraging them to be themselves, no matter who that is. Advertisements which celebrate natural beauty are becoming more prominent and celebrated. Just look at the Dove campaigns which started in 2005, showing real women, not airbrushed models, who are comfortable with how they look. Or even the more recent MINI Cooper “Defy Labels” campaign featuring Serena Williams, which simultaneously challenge stereotypes about women (Williams is a world-renowned tennis champion) and the MINI brand. In Lebanon, an increasing number of advertisements are portraying women in professional roles, in particular ones publicizing bank loans for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). By having women at the forefront of such ads, these companies and banks are simultaneously promoting the growing number of women entrepreneurs in this country and therefore the image of women as independent, creative and innovative.

The Lebanese scene

The worsening economic and social situation in Lebanon over the past few years has shifted the public’s attention, and in turn the advertising world’s focus, in a direction which is not centered on stereotyping women but rather on the issues facing our society. “I noticed that advertising in Lebanon changed a bit to reflect more local problems, such as the political situation. In the last two to three years people are worried with so many other lifestyle things that should be secured for them and these concerns are reflected in media messaging,” says Hmedeh.

[pullquote]Lebanon has seen an increase of women in top management roles within the advertising domain[/pullquote]

As such, you see advertisements in Lebanon which play on the names of political parties to sell their products or ones which focus on nostalgic elements to remind people of perceived better times. There is also an increase in civic society commercials, some of which stand up for women by raising awareness on issues of domestic violence, such as the KAFA campaigns which have gone viral on social media networks.

Change is coming

While recent years have seen improvements in the depiction of women in advertisements, more consistent monitoring is needed to keep the issue in focus. What is also needed is more active involvement of women in media in general.

While media is a reflection of society, it can, and should, also be used as a vehicle for change, and with more women in leadership roles in advertising, this can be achieved. According to a 2002 United Nations report: “No longer is the media just considered a mirror of the society and its events. Its effect has expanded and is influencing the way people are arranging their priorities and interests. In fact, it is influencing how people formulate their knowledge, attitudes, stands and practices. Shifting the portrayal of women in a more positive and realistic manner could be accomplished by the influence and efforts of women working within the media.”

Lebanon has seen an increase of women in top management roles within the advertising domain.  Hmedeh says 70 percent of Mindshare’s employees are women, with many of these women in decision making roles and although she stresses that this is not the case for all media buying companies in Lebanon, she believes the share of female senior managers in agencies based in Beirut has definitely increased over the past 10 years.

In line with Hmedeh, Leo Burnett’s Abi Saleh says: “In the advertising and communications industry in the Middle East, you definitely see more women at the top than in other industries.”

This increase in the number of women working in advertising in the region and in Lebanon is a positive indication that sexist advertisements will continue to be replaced with more thought-provoking and creative ones that actually grab the consumer’s attention: a win-win situation for all.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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