Promoting new sensibilities: women's organisations - and a new exhibition - take aim at vulgar ads

Photo: Beth Lazroe

There is no saying more well-known in the world of advertising than the old adage "sex sells" and for good reason: sex sells perhaps more than just about anything else. By now, most of us have grown accustomed to the role of sex in advertising, in selling everything from magazines to perfume, to jewellery to clothing. Many have nothing against it or are even in favour, if sensual elements are related to theme and are intelligently and tastefully done. But what about when they're not?

In recent years the Czech Republic has seen an increase in billboard, tram, and kiosk ads that have significantly pushed the envelope of poor taste: more and more images of women in lingerie or bikinis or simply topless, advertising everything from strip-clubs and bordellos to computers to even heavy machinery, with situations that are openly vulgar and slogans often verging on the absurd. "Want her to eat out of your hand?" one ad for a men's lifestyle magazine has asked, picturing a model on all fours. Other ads show women in lurid or suggestive poses - legs spread and glazed expressions - like pages out of a porno magazine. Critics warn of a profound impact:

"I wouldn't even call it 'sex' as such: I would call it a kind of sexual 'fantasy' that really has nothing to do with who women really are as human beings. And, I think it's quite harmful for society, it certainly doesn't promote an egalitarian society."

New York-born Irish photographer Beth Lazroe, a long-term Prague resident, took offence to such gratuitous displays - which she says she has never seen so widespread anywhere else. Some time ago she decided to do something about it. For a number of year she documented ads in Prague that, to borrow her words, form a "visual assault". Her exhibition, titled "In Our Faces", opened at Prague's Old Town Hall last week.

"Basically I photographed ads that offended and upset me, and also ads that dominated the public space, or, dwarfed the concept that this is a public space for everybody. The level of this kind of representation - in which women are completely objectified - and in terms of its frequency is such that it almost dismisses the whole idea that a woman is a person. So, in that sense I don't rate it terribly high."

Lazroe's black and white images capture some of the more infamous ads from around the city like pictures from a crime scene: they're 'evidence', unembellished and blunt. The ads are the real subjects of her photographs, but people who "wander" in or out of the frame also play a role. Often most seem disinterested or caught up in their thoughts, unaware or for the most part unperturbed by the messages in the ads around them. Nobody really appears particularly shocked.

Why more people here haven't protested against sexism in ads, the photographer feels, is influenced by historic reasons: the opening up of Czech society after the fall of communism when an influx of new influences could "do no wrong".

University lecturer Pavla Jonssonova agrees that the situation is complex:

"I think that sexist advertising is 'acceptable' because there's this sense that the market has the right to decide if 'it' sells then you can use any means this way. I think that's a wrong view, but I think it's just the general 'common sense' of Czech liberals, I would say. The other thing that I think is that there is a fear of reintroducing any kind of censorship. I think after this long period when there was censorship the Czechs kind of treasure this freedom of expression, even if it has negative aspects to it. It is really a problem to find a solution."

In any case, so far the "In Our Faces" exhibition has gotten a great deal of attention from the public and left many with a feeling that something should be done: that offending advertisers and ad agencies should change their ways.

"The first time I showed these pictures at Prague Castle for an international group exhibition I got many speaking to me I private about how they were [shocked]. But, I think it's much harder for people here to protest things about things coming from the private sector because it is associated with the 'new order' here. I think that Czechs are quite vocal when something comes up that they feel is threatening them through their own state apparatus. But, when it comes to criticising that comes from the outside which is associated with this commercial democracy, I think there is a lot of reticence. Also, for a lot of young women it's intimidating to complain."

Not everyone, though shares the view that the situation is so drastic, that there is so much need to protest: Radio Prague recorded all kinds of reactions out on the streets from both Czechs, as well as tourists, ranging from strongly against to disinterest to mild concern. Many told us they didn't think the situation was all that different from anywhere else, and allowed erotica a place in advertising as long as standard lines of decency were upheld.

"I think it should be that way that it's not putting women down, you know? But, obviously it's a way to make people notice the advertisement, so it's quite understandable. But, it should restricted so that it's not bad for women."

"I think that now it's going to be better. But, some years ago I was very annoyed. But, now I think that we can also see men on the billboards... So it's a little bit better. There should be more men."

"I don't really have a problem with it at all, no."

"It's a pretty powerful way to sell products. It all works in its way. Sex sells."

"It's probably less here than in England."

"I'd say less than in England, really."

"I have to say I don't like some of the poses and I don't like it when models are scantily clad."

"Ads that are explicit or vulgar are also often so stupid I'd never buy the product. No blondes with chainsaws for me, or do-it-yourself girls in underwear, no. They can't expect me to fall for that!"

Czechs are generally very liberal when it comes to sex, one reason perhaps why many fail to protest even when ads all too visibly go too far. Sex therapist Jiri Weiss, pleased by liberal attitudes in general, warns it is important to distinguish between sexual openness on the one hand and the reinforcement of negative and damaging stereotypes on the other. In his view, there is no place for demeaning or vulgar advertisements in the 21st century.

"Czechs are really liberal towards sex! Our research shows that, for example, that the attitudes towards extra-marital sex or pre-marital sex are very liberal and I am glad that in this area they are so liberal. But, of course, I would prefer it if ads took an egalitarian view of women and were against the stereotypes that we see now."

In the most drastic cases the Czech Advertising Standards Council has stepped in and warned companies to yank offensive billboards and kiosk ads. In some cases, though, it has reacted slowly, one reason why activists would like to see more pressure applied.

A one-day conference was held on the same day "In Our Faces" opened last week, bringing a number of well-known public figures including activists, health workers, psychologists, and politicians together. Many of whom agreed advertisers and the council to gradually needed to change much of way women in the Czech Republic are represented in ads, to change the focus from sex. It's early days yet, but activists or simply concerned members of the public now feel the issue is at last in the forefront.

"We're... we're basically presenting our point of view, how we see it, not as tourists, [I'm not a tourist], I live here... I could wear a t-shirt that says this! I see this exhibition as a 'catalyst' and the response I've had has indicated is that people really are upset by this. But they haven't really started to complain about it. Now, it's up to the Czech people to decide what they want... in their public spaces."