Culture

Against Ads: Display More Public Art Instead

A billboard advertising diamond jewelry in Bombay, India, in 2005. (Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)
Communities should claim more control over the messages written on their physical landscapes.

In our present #MeToo moment of reckoning over sexual assault and harassment, everyone believes his or her own pet cause should be the next focus of activism. I confess myself no different. I think our pursuit of justice is incomplete if we only tear down powerful individual men. We should seize the opportunity to dismantle the architecture of sexual entitlement, the systems that foster harassment and shield harassers — and one of those systems is the ubiquitous presence of sexually toxic advertising.

When Calvin Klein plasters billboards with a sprawl of underwear-clad Kardashians, the company is recapitulating the harasser’s logic of sexual entitlement on a monumental scale. “These women are here, undressed and supine, for your pleasure,” the ad seems to say. “This is what you should want.” The ad campaign ostensibly focuses on “unity between strong individuals,” but the languid poses and concussed expressions chosen by the advertisers erase the celebrity models’ individuality. This image abstracts away the human story of these women and piles them in a barn like so many market wares.

In fact, this particular photo shoot undeniably conceals as much as it reveals. Kylie Jenner has a quilt covering her baby bump, masking her pregnancy. This selective accommodation of privacy makes the final product follow Bizarro World logic: Sexualized near-nudity is for public display, but maternity must be hidden away like a shameful secret. It’s of a piece with shaming women for breastfeeding in public. We’ve bought into the reduction of women’s bodies to tools for titillation, and find their natural powers scandalous.

I’m on the advisory board of a female-led theater company that seeks to create good, true, beautiful, and vibrant roles for women. This mission means we produce plays with whole female characters: women with bodies, wills, intellects, emotions; relationships to sex and sexuality but also to the human community and to God. People, in other words. For me, the contrast with the depiction of women in advertising couldn’t be starker. Advertisers tout “empowerment,” but so often they’re interested only in the power of attraction, painting women as waiting vessels for male desire. It’s an impoverished view, but one we recognize in too many men in power.

Lascivious advertisements do not, of course, excuse the behavior of Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, or any of the public figures facing overdue consequences for their patterns of assault and harassment. But much of our advertising does a great deal to normalize the idea that women should be constantly sexually available, by presenting them as objects displayed for the pleasure of the consumer. Risqué ads often serve as visual pollution, unasked-for intrusions on our attention, offered with all the tact and respect of a sidewalk catcaller. Moreover, these ads miseducate young people through a fantasyland of airbrushed bodies and sexbot-imitating affects. Images, particularly ones blown up to super-sized scales, are powerful didactic tools. How are advertisements training us to look at women? Do the Victoria’s Secret ads that light up larger than life in Times Square highlight women’s intelligence, aspirations, character?

Surely this is nothing but prudery, some might object. Sexy photo shoots are all in good fun. But several recent stories from the modeling world suggest that it’s not uncommon for models, men and women, to be harassed, coerced, and groped by photographers. Many models understood they would lose their careers if they spoke out about these routine violations. The culture of predation is pervasive — models who do complain are told by agency representatives that enduring such unwanted touching is the price they have to pay for success in the industry, or even that it’s necessary for the photos to look good. The ads using sex to sell us products are often themselves products of sexually predatory behavior.

I hope both progressive feminists and social conservatives can agree that advertisers have no right to rule our gaze. When they push demeaning content on us, we should fight back. We need to reclaim the space these ads take up in our attention and our cities. Outdoor advertising does not deserve its omnipresence, especially when advertisers choose objectification as a tactic.

I hope progressive feminists and social conservatives can agree: When advertisers push demeaning content on us, we should fight back.

Artistic guerrilla campaigns are underway against ads’ predominance in our public spaces. The collective Art in Ad Places spent 2017 beautifying pay-phone kiosks by replacing ads with non-commercial artwork — temporarily, as the authorities usually tore down the art after a day or two. The group states: “By replacing advertisements with artwork, Art in Ad Places provides a public service and an alternative vision of our public environment.” Some of their guerilla installations, such as an entry from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” campaign, are direct counterprogramming to the harassment in which ads are complicit. But all of the interventions of Art in Ad Places invite us to imagine a world where communities have more control over the messages — about bodies, needs, and desires — written over their physical landscape. We should be inspired by such rebellions against outdoor advertising and create legal, social, and artistic antidotes to toxic ads.

Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and cultural critic who writes from New York City.

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