Swedish panic over nakedness in advertising

One of the Seqr advertisements:
“All I need is my mobile”
This morning, my friend Martina brought my attention to an ad campaign by a mobile payments company in Sweden, in which several of the company’s staff appear naked beside the tag line, ‘All I need is my mobile.’ The ad campaign sparked a fair amount of criticism from some feminists in Sweden, who often view feminine nakedness in advertising with suspicion.

In an article on Resumé.se, Nina Åkestam echoed a common refrain—that depictions of naked women were damaging to the position of women in society:
“Det riktiga problemet är att i och med den här kampanjen fick de här kvinnornas döttrar lite mindre sannolikhet att få lika bra lön som deras söner. Några fler personer drabbas av psykiska problem. Och det dröjer ännu lite längre tills Sverige får sin första kvinnliga statminister…”
“The real problem is that this campaign has made these women’s daughters less likely to get as good salaries as their sons. More people will suffer from psychological problems. And it’ll be even longer before Sweden gets its first woman prime minister.”
I think Ms. Åkestam overestimates the influence one photo of a naked woman has on society. One could just as well say that the problem is that society treats the human body as something unusual and exceptional, to be hidden from view except in a very limited set of contexts. Surely there are better ways to empower women than decrying ads with naked women in them.

To better understand this point, step back for a moment and imagine a similar feminist argument, but made in different country where women are traditionally expected to cover themselves from head to toe. An ad appears showing a woman revealing her hair, arms, and ankles. A similar outcry erupts from a well-meaning feminist, who is outraged that an advertiser could be so short-sighted and crass as to use such sexist imagery (hair, arms & ankles!) just to grab attention and make a profit.

With this added bit of perspective, it becomes quite clear that the nakedness per se is not the problem.

The problem—what makes this kind of ad appealing to advertisers and offensive to some people—is the implied significance of nakedness in the societal context in which it appears, and in the mind of the observer.

If women and men truly wish to be free of the unfair and arbitrary gender-based assumptions, they also need to accept that many of these assumptions are based on even-more arbitrary societal customs like standards of modesty — standards that are mostly arbitrary, and that vary greatly between cultures.

So when someone claims that ads like this one encourage people to make unreasonable assumptions about women, the natural retort is that shunning such ads also encourages people to make assumptions about women—just other assumptions. Where Ms. Åkestam might claim, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are valuable only as objects of sexual desire,” another feminist might answer, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are respectable only if they are fully dressed.”

Which assumptions are good to encourage, which are not, and who gets to decide?

Another of the Seqr ads, this one depicting a man
When informed that the ad campaign included men and women of different ages and body styles, Ms. Åkestam did not change her position, but simply replied that naked men were different from naked women.

In the comments to her article, Ms. Åkestam wrote:
“Jag tycker iofs sällan att nakenhet är befriande när det används i kommersiella sammanhang för att sälja en irrelevant produkt. Inte för att kroppen är fel i sig, utan för att den har blivit så märkligt laddad i vår kultur. Den här kampanjen hade både män och kvinnor av olika åldrar och storlekar med, men jag tycker inte att det gör saken bättre faktiskt.”
“I believe that nakedness is seldom liberating when it is used in a commercial context to sell irrelevant products. Not because the body is in itself wrong, but because it [nakedness] has become so strangely sensationalized in our culture. This campain featured both men and women of different ages and body types, but I actually don’t think that makes it any better.”

Ms. Åkestam acknowledges that it is a problem that nakedness has become sensationalized in Swedish society; yet in the very next sentence, she argues against a campaign that would actually help to normalize nakedness in a non-sexist, non-ageist way.

She does not explain why she focused on just one photo from the campaign (the photo of the young woman), nor why she sees men’s and women’s nakedness so differently. And evidencing what migh be described as a lack of perspective, Åkestam also fails to realize that through her writing she is contributing to the very atmosphere of sensationalism about nakedness that she herself acknowledges is damaging.

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