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1982: Women’s bodies used to sell ‘everything from cars to chocolate bars’

A campaign dedicated to eliminating the degrading treatment of women in advertising wrote to the Taoiseach in 1982 to highlight the ‘continual humiliation’ of women in the media.

THE CHAIR OF the Campaign Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) wrote to the Taoiseach in 1982 to express the group’s opposition to the “degrading treatment of women as sex objects in all forms of the media” in Ireland, newly-released State Papers have revealed.

CASE was affiliated with the Council for the Status of Women, a group set up in 1973 – the year Ireland entered the European Union – with the goal of gaining equality for  women. The year of the Council’s founding was also marked by the removal of the marriage bar, which forbade Irish women to work after marriage, in the mist of agitation for equal pay.

Almost a decade after the founding of the Council, CASE Chair Antoinette Farron wrote to the Taoiseach Charles Haughey to present the association’s views:

CASE was started because of our concern about the use of women’s bodies in the media for amusement and titillation, and to sell everything from cars to chocolate bars. We feel very strongly that women will never achieve their full status as persons while they are being continually humiliated in the press and and TV.
Such portrayals cannot but effect men’s attitudes to women; perhaps worst of all is the damage that such portrayals do by distorting relationships between men and women, and by destroying the meaning of love and commitment. It is only when sex is used to dehumanize and control others that it becomes offensive, since it is a manifestation of fear and hate, rather than of love.

Advertising Standards

The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) had been set up a year previously, in 1981, to act as the independent self-regulatory body for the advertising industry.

An internal document from the Department of Trade, Commerce and Tourism related to the letter to the Taoiseach, dated the following month, noted that the principal statutory instrument covering the area of advertising was the Consumer Information Act 1978 – but that the Act was “concerned only with the truthfulness of trade descriptions and advertising rather than its more subjectively perceived aspects. ”

It noted that a European Economic Community (EEC) initiative on misleading and unfair advertising was being discussed in Brussels at that time and that, when finally adopted, the Directive “may go some way towards ensuring that the use of women in advertising does not lead to ‘promotion of discrimination on the grounds of sex, race or religion’.”

The document as highlighted the existence of the newly-established ASAI, saying that obne of the major principles of the body’s Code of Practice was that all advertising should be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

It added: “The setting up of this Authority in May, 1981 was regarded as a significant move by the advertising industry towards self-regulation.”

Government response

The response to CASE, from Minister of State Bertie Ahern, declared Farron’s letter a “very fine statement on the principles we should apply” and that the government agreed “fully” with the sentiments expressed.

Ahern wrote that the government had tried to ensure, though legislation and positive action, that women were able to participate fully in all aspects of community life on an equal basis with men – but noted that, while much progress had been made regarding various of overt discrimination, measures still had to be taken to “combat the more deep-rooted prejudices that exist”.

“The Government accept that the portrayal of women in advertising does not always advance the cause of equality between the sexes and indeed can lead to the reinforcement of stereotyped roles for both men and women,” he said.

However, Ahern also noted that judgements on what is ‘decent’ were ultimately subjective and that “too strict standards would inevitably lead to cries of ‘censorship’ and claims of undue Government interference”. As such, he said, the government believed the best means of tackling the problem was by encouraging voluntary self-regulation within the advertising industry – and that the establishment of the ASAI had been a “major step” towards this.

Ahern also commented on the “entire question of the effectiveness of using women’s bodies to sell”, saying that the subject was one of considerable contemporary debate:

Recent research in Britain has indicated that the treatment of women in advertising is changing to reflect more accurately the true role of women in society and that advertisements which do not give a realistic picture are likely t0 be less effective. It is to be hoped that future trends in advertising will continue this pattern and that the practice of portraying women mainly in a physical way will be rejected not only by  advertisers but by society as a whole.

See National Archives, ref number 2012/90/902

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