London banished sexist advertising – other European cities can do it too

Progressive European politicians are calling for other mayors to follow Sadiq Khan’s example. 

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Five years ago, there was uproar after an advert made for the upmarket retailer Harvey Nichols depicted women returning home after a night out in various states of undress. Hair standing on end, make up grubbily painted across the face as if in frontline combat, shoes dangling from fingers and the women hobbling back home with their heads hanging as they did the so called “walk of shame”. Looking back, it induced only a handful of complaints, but it was enough to make headlines. I appeared on the tea time news channels to argue why the objectification of women in this way was wholly unacceptable. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rejected the idea that the advert reinforced negative stereotypes of women generally… and neither did it find it to be sexist or demeaning to women.

It may only be half a decade later, but what is and is not considered acceptable is markedly different. The reinforcement of such overt and negative stereotyping of women in an advert is unlikely to be made today, but if it were, I dare say that the ASA watchdog would make a different judgement. And not just because of the ability of social media to apply soft pressure, but because levels of acceptability have changed in a structural form. Involvement from politicians has started to challenge this. In turn, society has started to consider what are the social norms and levels of acceptability.

When Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London, he promised to ban sexist advertising that objectified women. He asked Transport for London to do this and his proposal prevents the display of adverts promoting unrealistic, impossibly toned body images of women.

This week, to coincide with International Women’s Day (IWD) the progressive alliance in the European Parliament, the Socialist and Democrat group have joined forces and launched an exciting campaign. It’s more than aspirational. The European Charter which seeks to ban sexist advertising across major EU cities, is truly progressive and London is a signatory. London Assembly member Jeanette Arnold represented the Mayor of London and made an excellent case for supporting the 10 point plan.

The official title, “The EU platform for cities against sexist advertisements”, asks every mayor of a major European city to sign the commitment against sexist advertising.

The 10 clauses are broad (the full list is below) but essentially it seeks to stamp out stereotyping, overtly sexist advertising and all forms of messaging which objectifies women.

Those who claim this will impact important revenue streams for businesses which rely on paid for adverts need not look any further than the Mayor of London’s model. His critics warned that businesses would pull away from advertising with TfL. But since his ban was introduced, not a single business has stopped advertising – and why would they? The case for staying is too compelling: the London Underground and wider train network forms a public space which serves the 8.5 million people who live in and around London, plus the tourists who visit the city. That kind of reach is not obtainable in many more arenas. It must be a similar situation in other capital cities across the EU.

It’s not just sexist advertising that’s a problem. In 2012, I commissioned a report which suggested there is a strong link between sex advertising and trafficking. The research revealed that the Metropolitan Police had written to 170 newspaper editors in 2010 warning it considered there to be there to be a strong link between sex advertising and trafficking, and that “it is the responsibility of newspaper editors to scrutinise the ways they publish advertisements to not unwittingly support either sex trafficking or the exploitation of prostitution and become criminally liable”.

Women drive consumer purchasing, yet when it comes to advertising they continue to be portrayed as subordinate to men.

Slowly, attitudes are changing – within society, government and in the very watchdogs such as the ASA. The latter organisations exist, at least partly, to protect vulnerable women from the malign influence of impossibly digitally-perfected images of women. But change can be slow, and initiatives such as this EU wide Charter, hopefully, accelerate the inevitable – that this form of advertising is not acceptable. 

The EU platform for cities against sexist advertisements is a significant effort to address a problem which has existed for far too long, and how powerful to launch it on this day, International Women’s Day.

Mary Honeyball is the Labour MEP London and is the vice chair of the of the women and gender equality committee in the EU. She is Labours spokesperson for women and equality in Europe.