The politics of women’s clothing in advertising

A double billboard fills the end wall of an apartment house just off the Karmelitermarkt in Vienna’s 2nd district, heralding the beginning of summer with luscious posters of fruit smoothies and Italian beach wear. Ads always make things look good: Juicy berries and pineapple fitted with bending straws, stylish swimsuits painted onto the bodies of svelte teenage beauties with cascades of untamed locks. In a spring that seemed as if it would never come, these were the images of balmy days ahead, of the pleasures and pastimes of the holiday season.

Until a Sunday morning in late May, when we discovered the bathing beauties had been covered up shoulders-to-knees with white wallpaper. Hmmmm. What was this about?

A culture clash in our multiethnic neighborhood? Is it religion? Or traditional values? Or the next wave of feminism? Long discussions followed.  Someone had “paid good money” for this ad space, while someone else, or several someones, had been offended enough by the provocative poses to bother to cover it up.  New social pressures or a throw back to 70s activism? Or something else?

In advertising, the creative goal is positive association: If you buy this, you will feel better, look better, have more fun. It’s about aspiration, imagined pleasure and the fulfillment of desire.  But would any woman be so emaciated by choice? Perhaps. Instinctively, she might sense that willowy waifs are less threatening – and thus more loveable – than a mature, full-bodied woman who knows her own mind.

So why do the ads matter?  Why not just look at them and take pleasure in the beauty of those young girls?  Or just ignore them?  It seems impossible to get away from the politics of women’s clothing: How much is shown or concealed has always reflected a community consensus about status and values. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was seen as something shocking, now, heaven knows, anything goes.”

Except that it doesn’t. After decades of endless debates about skirt lengths and evolving undergarments, tight trousers or wet tee shirts, hip boots, high heels, leggings – all laden values and judgments – we have arrived at burka bans and the contested head scarves and a universe of implied control. And bathing suits.

At the City of Vienna Women’s Bureau a division has been set up to monitor advertising in public spaces. The group’s website, werbewatchgroup-wien.at, sets out criteria and examples – including another from the same company as the swimwear poster down the street – of ads that perpetuate “destructive stereotypes that shape, consciously or unconsciously, our images and attitudes.”

In 2016, a complaint was filed about this exact ad campaign. The assessment: Not sexist. So who covered up those girls?