Billboard Advertising: Sex, Violence, and the Art of Marketing

Depending upon whom you ask, the billboard above could be a creative conflation of high art—think abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock—and the low art of titillation in the service of commerce, or it could be an offensive depiction of a female posed as victim of violence, meant to attract voyeuristic glances in a cynical ploy to stamp a brand—in this case designer jeans–upon the public’s consciousness.


Advertisements that display scantily clad women in suggestive poses are a staple of marketing such products as clothing, cosmetics, and R-rated movies, as well as a perennial source of complaint by feminist groups and others concerned with what they see as a stereotyped portrayal of women as sexual objects.   Those ads tended to be confined to magazines and other venues most likely to be perused by adults, but a growing emphasis on the medium of outdoor advertising has seen more and more images some people find offensive appearing on billboards, supergraphic signs, bus wraps, and other forms of what the industry calls “out-of-home” marketing.

The Hudson jeans ad on the billboard on Santa Monica Blvd. in West L.A. , which features 17-year old Georgia May Jagger, daughter of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, has outraged some who live in the neighborhood and see it every day.  Jan Reichmann, president of the nearby Comstock Hills Homeowner’s Association, calls it “incredibly offensive.”  Joyce Foster, a Westwood resident and member of the West LA Area Planning Commission, says, “I can’t imagine anyone would want their daughter/friend/wife/sister on a sign like that…”

Most such objections don’t arise from prudery or moral qualms, but from the fact that billboards and other outdoor advertising signs can’t be turned off, but claim public space that is used by everyone, man and woman, adult and child, adolescent and teenager.  What if you’d prefer not to try to answer questions like, “Mommy, why doesn’t she have any clothes on?” or “What are those people doing?”  What if you’d prefer not to have your daughter—or son, for that matter—think of certain images as personifying womanhood?

Going a step further, some have argued that outdoor ads with women in provocative poses ought to be regarded as sexual harassment.  The issue was raised in a recently-published book entitled “Sex in Public: Women, Outdoor Advertising and Public Policy”, by Dr. Lauren Rosewarne, manager of the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne in Australia.  Rosewarne argues that imagery often bearing a strong resemblance to pin-ups would likely be outlawed in a woman’s workplace even though they are readily displayed on billboards and other outdoor advertising signs in public space.

Imagine a boss putting up images like the ones on the billboards to the right around the walls of an office space where women work.  If you were one of those women, what would your reaction be?

Back in 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, adopted a Platform for Action that stated, among other things, that “The continued projection of negative and degrading images of women in media communications – electronic, print, visual and audio – must be changed.”  The platform also declared that a “world- wide trend towards consumerism has created a climate in which advertisements and commercial messages often portray women primarily as consumers and target girls and women of all ages inappropriately.”

Fifteen years later, have things changed?  Take a look at the billboards and supergraphic signs you see on your daily drives, and then decide what the answer might be.

However, one company did take pains to keep “edgy” content from public eyes on a Calvin Klein ad that ran on billboards in New York and L.A. earlier this year.  The sign (shown at right) displayed a “QR” code that allowed viewers to use cell phones and other digital devices to access a video featuring a female model in a setting some thought suggestive of a gang rape.  For those inclined, the video can be viewed below.

Dennis Hathaway

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