BEIRUT: Over the past year Lebanon has seen a slew of provocative adverts promoting the idea of women as objects of violence, sexual aggression and as mindless commodities, a trend which is disturbing analysts and industry insiders. Examples can be found everywhere from billboards to social media.
In a Facebook ad for a special event dubbed “Catfight Club” for the popular weekly nightclub event “C U NXT SAT,” two topless women are pitted against each other in a boxing ring. Rules like, “You must fight barefoot, but the less clothes you wear the hotter the fight,” are listed.
Nut and confectionary company Rifai released two ads around Valentines Day, one with a picture of a walnut and the other with a cashew. The walnut caption read, “Because he’s got the brains,” while the cashew got, “Because she’s got the curves.”
They later removed the ad after activists complained, issuing a public statement saying: “In order not to offend anyone and to avoid any further misunderstandings, we have decided to remove two of the posted visuals.”
In June, designer Johnny Farah released an advertising campaign to promote Beirut Design Week showing a woman with a bag covering her head as a man strangled her with a belt.
After numerous complaints, Farah issued a statement describing the photo shoot as “lighthearted” and apologized to those it might have offended.
Looking back at the incident now, Farah admits to The Daily Star, “It was wrong.” He described the incident as a “learning experience” that had taught him to be more conscientious in his marketing campaigns.
For many, it is the advertisers who are to blame. But some advertising executives say that while they regret producing objectionable or distasteful material, it’s their duty to promote their client’s vision.
Claude El Khal, creative director for M&C Saatchi in the Middle East and North Africa, says that many of his clients’ demands “reflect the society of yesterday.”
“Even when we show an emancipated woman, they’re always doing family duties – as if women can’t exist without that,” he said. “It’s stupid.”
But in the end, he says, he has to answer to his clients, a policy he doesn’t argue with as part of his job.
“If it were that, then we wouldn’t be in advertising. We would be artists, and that would be a good thing, but we would starve,” he says. “Sometimes you do something you’re not convinced of, but at the end of the day those are the rules of the game.”
Marc Daou, chief operating officer at the Rizk Group, a Lebanese advertising firm with operations throughout the region, says there is an over-reliance on stereotypes and shock value in an effort to attract consumers. He suggests such tactics may have lost their novelty.
“There are no ethical standards for working in the industry,” he says.
He describes agency brainstorming sessions as having “a lot of edgy stuff with some things that are offensive. Sometimes it’s not clear cut.”
“The bigger problem is the ads that don’t generate shock. It then becomes normal, and we think it’s OK,” says Jad Melki, director of the Media Studies department at the American University of Beirut. He sees sexism in advertising as a worldwide problem, but says it is worse in Lebanon because of a lack of regulation, watchdogs and public awareness.
“Our children, especially girls, are growing up with images telling them that they are valued for their looks, their bodies, their hair and the way they dress, instead of other elements that make them human,” he says. “This normalizes them as sex objects.”
The sexualized messages so common in Lebanon are at odds with cultural mores says Alexandra Tohme, a Dubai-based marketing manager originally from Lebanon. “Education and culture says no, advertising says yes. Then what happens? Brain meltdown?”
Melki questions, however, the age old advertising adage “sex sells,” pointing to studies that have found that sex doesn’t necessarily sell, but simply attracts attention.
Melki believes that not only do these ads affect women’s emotional well-being, but they also have the potential to affect their physical health, noting the correlation between unrealistic beauty and high rates of anorexia and plastic surgery that can be harmful to their health in the long-run.
Myriam Sfeir, managing editor of Al-Raida (female pioneer) magazine at the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Women’s Studies in the Arab World, says she has seen the negative effects over-sexualized, airbrushed ads have upon young Lebanese girls and women.
“They’re pressured to work on their outer shell. I’ve seen girls as young as 10 dieting – not for their health but just to lose weight.”
Melki sees increased awareness as the best solution to sexism in advertising, which, in the absence of school programs that exist in some European countries, could involve protesting to the company in question.
In some cases, as with Johnny Farah, ads have been removed following social media campaigns – a sign that pressure does work despite a lack of industry regulation.
“It will be very difficult to change how women are treated now, but with something intangible and creative like advertising, this could be a good way to get the ball rolling,” says Tohme.