I have spent much of last week, when International Women’s Day was held, pondering how I can #BeBoldForChange in a time when working for a more inclusive, gender-equal world has never been more important, at home or abroad. Forgive me as this is not the usual blog on legal developments, but since I have this little blog soapbox, I thought I would exercise it just a bit.
On Wednesday, the actual day of International Women’s Day, I spent a wonderful evening in the new Venable DC office at an event honoring the Power of Resilience with an insightful conversation between my partner Stephanie DeLong and Debra Smilley-Wainer, the Senior General Counsel — International at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services (IIS). Later in the evening, I was rocked to my core at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring women from around the world serving on the frontlines of change, including a Malawai chief who is reversing child marriages and ensuring girls have access to schools, and a digital activist in India using crowd source data to pinpoint and combat sexual violence in India. And I was not alone, of course. The press reports the First Lady spoke about equality and a focus on education for women at a White House lunch honoring International Women’s Day.
But this is not just a question for one day or night, of how can I help do the right thing. It is a question I come back to often, particularly when humbled by the daily work of others, such as my friend Cindy Dyer and her work for Vital Voices combatting domestic violence against women across the globe (see her Ted Talk here), and by my friend Layli Miller Muro at the Tahirih Justice Center working tirelessly to protect immigrant women and girls fleeing violence.
I don’t yet have answers to what I should do to #BeBoldForChange. But I had to turn my attention back to my day job of advertising and away from pondering a woman’s place in the world at home and abroad. And then I saw this headline, in which France’s advertising regulator required Yves Saint Laurent to stop using print and outdoor advertising featuring painfully thin models in submissive poses, as pictured here. France’s advertising code recommends refraining from objectifying or discriminating against any person or class of people. And apparently this campaign drew considerable ire with many men and women voicing their distaste for the degrading images. The UK’s Committee on Advertising Practice recently asked for comment on new rules prohibiting the use of sexual images in advertising of those under the age of 18 or those who appear to be younger than 18.
In the United States, our advertising regulators do not get involved in matters of taste and decency. While Section 5 of the FTC prohibits unfair, as well as deceptive, acts practices, use of unfairness enforcement in advertising has not been used to restrict showing emaciated models or to limit demeaning and stereotyping women. Of course they would have the First Amendment to worry about and whether the additional limits on commercial speech would even allow for such regulation. At times self-regulation has stepped in such as the DISCUS code for alcohol advertising prohibiting use of degrading images. However, these efforts are few and far between. Perhaps more can be done to create more far-reaching voluntary guidelines, much as was done with respect to advertising and childhood obesity.
Many advertising lawyers working for brand advertisers and agencies band together to say that regulation and enforcement is not always the answer, and that advertisers should be given the opportunity to do the right thing. We also like to think of ourselves as helping our clients make the right legal choices and weighing in on when advertising might additionally cause PR or consumer satisfaction issues. I am fairly certain some lawyers reviewed the Yves Saint Laurent advertising. Perhaps reasonable minds differ and some found the ads to be artistic and edgy. But I am fairly sure some people in the chain of approving content found them distasteful and demeaning. I wonder if they said anything. I hope they did. Or if they did not, I hope they find a voice and will express when they see women or any group of people portrayed undignified in an ad. We can do better and we should try to do better, even if this means stepping outside our box of pure legal review. I am not the first advertising lawyer to suggest that we work together to help our clients do the right thing and present positive images in advertising. My friend Brinsley Dresden at Lewis Silken called for a boycott of American Apparel several years ago due to their use of sexualizing very young women in their advertising. I am not sure if what I am advocating would qualify as being bold or whether such an effort would result in any meaningful change. But while I ponder what I can do to make the world a safer and better place for women and girls, I can start with what I do every day and use my voice to protest when I see something distasteful and demeaning. I hope you will join me and do the same.