BEEP.BEEP.BEEP. The cars around me frantically horn. The traffic jam has kept everyone frozen. The further I look ahead the more the cars start to look like little bugs, little bugs I wish I could squish. I look to my right, and a rectangular billboard catches my attention. A blonde young woman with a red tank top stands with her back toward me. A rolled up newspaper is placed on the back pocket of her denim mini shorts. To my surprise I realised, it was a newspaper ad with a slogan that says, “Your personal ad for free.”
For years, advertisers have used sex and women as an instrument to grab people’s attention. A research done by Mary J. Thompson, explained that sexual content started during the sexual revolution, between 1964 and 1984.
From then on, sex was on everything; adverts, television and magazines. Today, a woman can buy Cosmopolitan magazine and learn all about her sexuality and what she can do “under the sheets.” People can now watch pornography in their living room, and ads with sexual content have been called art.
There are very few restrictions to what people can put out there. Anything that the government can restrict may go against a person’s first amendment right.
This is not the case in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, if a company wanted to advertise their product, the General Security officer must approve their ads first. Unlike the United States, anything displayed in public from television ads, to billboards have to go through General Security.
Pano Plus, a billboard company goes through it every day. It is a 20-year-old family business, currently run by the second oldest son, Andre Feghali. They own approximately 500 billboards all over Lebanon, in various sizes.
Ads need permission before they are allowed up, because some things are not permitted.
“Nobody knows what the restrictions are exactly. You just show them your ad, if they approve you can display it,” Feghali explained while shrugging his shoulders. “If not, you have to create another one,” he said.
The General Security officer only disapproves an ad with too much skin. “There’s a limit to how low a woman’s jeans can go,” Feghali stated. “This would be too much,” he said pointing two inches down the waistline. “But this is Ok,” he said laughing pointing perfectly to his waistline.
Feghali has no restrictions to what he puts up on his billboards as he believes that business is business. Even though he doesn’t think sex sells, if a company wishes to advertise that way he would go with.
“I think the General Security Office is doing their ‘job’, so who am I to decide otherwise. A company can put a picture of their mothers for all I care,” he said humorously.
Calvin Klein once said, “What do people want me to do? Show my clothes on a clothesline? They’re to be worn on the human body, so I’m going to put them on the most beautiful body I can find.”
Many ads that show women and sexual content, are usually criticised for using unrealistic women and for objectifying them. Some women’s attitudes have evolved tremendously, and some still prefer to be old school.
Myriam Sfeir, a feminist and the managing editor of Al-Raida journal believes that the use of women in advertising today is definitely objectification and not liberation. “I saw an ad a few years ago, you had a lemon put in a way as if it were a woman’s breast. It was for an ad that had nothing to do with it,” she said her green eyes beaming with disgust. “It was for a juice or something,” she said almost horrified at the idea.
Others, like the new modern feminism group called ‘Third Wave’, embrace sexuality. Research by Amanda Zimmerman on sexual objectification stated that this new ‘third wave’ views sex as power and women as the dominant power.
Sfeir would probably laugh at this new modern idea. She believes that an ad does not need a woman to sell their products, at least not a half-naked one. “The way ads use women, even men, but especially women to promote a certain product is despicable,” she said nodding negatively at the idea.
What is this obsession with women and nudity? A question many women ask, including Sfeir.
Well Zimmerman has the answer to that. Her research also specified that “men continue to represent women as sex objects, because they are desperately trying to regain power from the femme fatale who has controlled them throughout history.”
“Sex sells!” a statement almost every advertiser believes. It’s an easy way to grab a person’s attention. Why? Loulwa Kaloyeros, a Psychology Professor at the Lebanese American University explains.
“Sex is an instinct that we identify with, it is a confirmation of our biological value,” said Kaloyeros. “The advertising business obviously understands this, and has been using it for ages,” she pointed out.
So no matter what gender a person is he/she will always look at a sexual ad.
Advertising is a business, and it has no rules when it comes to creativity. Whatever grabs a person’s attention is what they will display. “Ever since I can remember, ads of tires and cars associated with beautiful sexy women have been synonymous,” Kaloyeros said. “They convince people that lips, butts, and boobs sell and therefore they are everywhere from supermarkets, to cars, to drinks and to lingerie,” she explained.
The problem with this type of advertising is the consequences it brings about. Everyone may look or notice a sexual ad, but not everyone feels the same about it. A man may perceive a sexual ad in a different manner than a woman.
Kaloyeros believes that there are two categories of women and how they may perceive these ads. “I think women in general can be divided into two broad categories,” Kaloyeros stated.
Holding two fingers up she continues, “On the one hand you have the intellectually mature woman who understands that this is abuse and exploitation of the female,” she said putting one of her fingers down. “On the other hand, you have the group who see pride in the beauty of the female body and her sexuality. After all, the women in the ads are convinced that they are doing a great job,” she said.
In this case, Sfeir would be considered to be in the first category and the ‘third wave’ would be considered to be in the second category. Two marketing students from the Lebanese American University, and the American University of Beirut would be categorised in the second group.
But they have a slightly different perspective on the matter.
Malak Abu Rizk, a senior at LAU believes that an ad should be catchy and informative enough to stick to someone’s mind. “Advertisement should be sexy! But it doesn’t mean women have to be naked,” she said smiling at the idea.
When Malak was asked about the ad described above, and about ads that objectify women she replied, “The ad you described doesn’t know what he or she is doing, but advertisers in general do not usually imply anything. Women shouldn’t take this too seriously,” she said annoyed at the idea. “Women are beautiful and should embrace that. That’s why women are used in almost every ad,” she stated confidently.
Caroline Izmirian on the other hand is an AUB marketing graduate. She believes that ads need to be catchy, but they also need to be ethical. “In order for an ad to be successful it has to fit the image of the product,” the 22-year-old stated. “Concerning the ad you described, the company clearly doesn’t know what it is doing, but it could be that it was targeting a younger generation,” she said giving the company the benefit of the doubt.
Both students admit that sex sells, but none of their instructors try to encourage this idea. They both believe that women who criticise objectifying ads are taking it too seriously. “Ads where women are being portrayed as submissive, I understand why women may get irritated, but I personally believe that some of these women victimise themselves,” said Izmirian. “If women do not feel that way about themselves, then the ad should not bother them,” she said in a serious tone.
Women themselves create ads with sexual content, and even female designers themselves have a different kind of body image. Kaloyeros agrees with Izmirian that some women victimise themselves.
“Women have not been forced to create these ads nor participate in them. You are a victim if you have no say in your situation,” Kaloyeros said firmly. She believes that "every decision we make is our own, and women should not be considered victims in this business,” she added.
As I passed the dreadful traffic, I started to notice all the other ads displayed on top of buildings, and on the side of the road. Then it hit me. Every ad with a beautiful man or women grabbed my attention. A smile uncovers itself on my face. All these ads were successful because I could not ignore them, and I could recall almost all of them.