The End of an Era: How the #MeToo Movement Is Raining on Advertising’s ‘Sex Sells’ Parade

A blonde woman in a barely-there minidress struts down the sidewalk on a busy night in Manhattan. At every turn, the glare of streetlights dances off her skin as her garment’s plunging neckline and short hem place her chest and legs in full view. Catcalls and a persistent male gaze follow her in this “whirlwind of disco, sparkles and great shoes.”

Racy images and questionable depictions of male antics — such as the ones employed by Jimmy Choo in the above-referenced “Shimmer in the Dark” ad, starring supermodel Cara Delevingne — have been part of fashion and beauty marketing for decades. It’s so commonplace, in fact, that it borders on ubiquity.

But in the wake of #MeToo, the movement bringing attention to and denouncing sexual assault and harassment of women, Jimmy Choo’s December commercial drew significant public scrutiny. Scores of people took to social media to call out the spot for being “regressive” and “tone-deaf,” ultimately prompting the brand to pull the ad. (The company declined repeated requests from FN for comment.)

At a time when individuals and corporations are facing a day of reckoning for turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct, the fashion industry is rightfully compelled to take a meaningful look at its own contributions — in particular, how advertising has reinforced harmful gender identities and cultural ideologies.

“The fashion industry has a big role to play in creating these sexual repertoire rituals and [depicting] what romance and [the start of] a potential sexual encounter look like,” said Elza Ibroscheva, associate dean of communications at Webster University and author of “Advertising, Sex & Post Socialism: Women, Media & Femininity in the Balkans.” “What does a sexual relationship look like? How are we describing desirable and undesirable sexual behaviors and [defining] inviting and uninviting cues and tokens?” she added. “All of these things are often signaled through advertising content.”

MeToo Women's March
A #MeToo Women's March in Los Angeles in November.
CREDIT: Rex Shutterstock

How We Got Here

Many of the erotic overtones that inundate today’s fashion ads can be traced back to the 1960s, when the sexual revolution challenged traditional codes of behavior and redefined roles in interpersonal relationships.

Experts note that while sexual liberation, embracing the female form and supporting freedom of choice for women are noble causes, those messages were quickly commoditized in marketing. And the trend has rapidly escalated in the years since.

“In the post-feminist era, where women are sexually empowered, the new stereotype has become the overuse of sexuality,” said Dafna Lemish, professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and founding editor of the Journal of Children and Media. “In many ways, it’s misleading because [advertising] appropriates feminist language — women are acknowledged to have their own agency as sexual beings, but this empowerment is being restricted to just their sexuality, so they are reduced to that.”

By leaning on messaging that often objectifies women and depicts men in a hypermasculine manner, fashion brands are all too often on the wrong side of the conversation, added Lemish.

“This is how [sexualized advertising] ties to the #MeToo movement: It continues to indoctrinate society [into the belief] that the most important thing women have to offer is their appearance and being sexual objects, which becomes the first thing they are judged on,” Lemish said.

Granted, a huge component of fashion advertising hinges on appearances and selling a look.

But Lemish said the danger is, these ads can distort men’s perceptions of how to behave, giving them the false assumption that women are “available for sex at any time” and that when a woman says “no,” she should be convinced otherwise.

What’s more, these themes can be most problematic in advertising (versus other types of media) because brands have mere seconds to make an impact, so they often rely on shock factor.

And with the rise of social media, characterized by its diverse audience and lack of curation, questionable imagery can have even greater repercussions.

Nevertheless, #MeToo and the entertainment industry’s Time’s Up legal fund offer fertile ground for soul-searching in fashion marketing. And Ibroscheva suggests the industry could be on the cusp of reform.

“There is this level of awakening in the cultural industries — advertising as well — that there is potential for changing the mentality and leadership,” she said. “[Historically], sexual messages in advertising haven’t gone further into the consequences or what you can do if you find yourself in [an uncomfortable] situation — that is the golden moment where a lot of this narrative could be turned around.”

Resetting the Clock

But change won’t be easy. After all, the bulk of fashion advertising has spent nearly six decades abiding by the mantra “sex sells.”

Still, experts say the marketing pendulum could swing further in the other direction if more women held decision-making roles.

“We need more female voices in the creative process, not because they’re the token diversity hire but because their opinions really matter,” Ibroscheva said, noting that minorities could play a significant role in identifying and correcting harmful stereotypes before they make their way into marketing.

One of the most vocal fashion figures championing female leadership is Tamara Mellon, the designer who co-founded and helped build Jimmy Choo.

“When I founded Jimmy Choo, I was 27 years old, and I just wanted to make beautiful shoes. I had no idea the challenges I was going to face being a woman in business,” said Mellon, who exited the London-based luxury label in 2011 and now has an eponymous direct-to-consumer brand. “I had a board of all men at Jimmy Choo, which is absurd. We should have more women on the board if we’re selling women’s shoes.”

In her current venture, she’s incorporated many of those lessons.

Tamara Mellon
A campaign image by Tamara Mellon.
CREDIT: Tamara Mellon

“I try to hire as many women as I can — whether it’s outside consultants or in-house,” Mellon said. “When we work with outside consultants, one of the questions we ask is, ‘Who is the woman at the table?’ And we’re not talking about the assistant who is getting the coffee. I want to know who the executive is at the table.”

That emphasis on empowerment plays out in her marketing as well. While she does believe in portraying female sexuality, Mellon said the brand is extremely conscientious about the way it depicts women. “We don’t put our models in poses where they look submissive,” she said. “They’re in very strong, athletic poses. We also work with models that have muscle definition. And I won’t work with models under 18.”

Meanwhile, Kate and Andy Spade for decades have eschewed sexualized ads in favor of a more preppy and playful visual identity. With their Kate Spade brand, in particular, they set a distinct tone with advertising that often depicts women in high-fashion yet modest garments in settings such as libraries and en route to the office.

Kate Spade fall 2018 ready to wear
Kate Spade fall '18.
CREDIT: Rex Shutterstock

“It was intentional to project Kate’s personal vision of who she is as a woman, as well as her vision for other women she and I look up to and appreciate,” said Andy Spade, who co-founded the label with his wife in 1993. “Hypersexualization and that sort of thing just isn’t us — it’s owned by Guess, Versace, Calvin Klein [and others]. To us, smart is sexy, and so are women who are interesting and have different careers.”

After selling their stake in
 the label in 2006, the Spades in 2016 founded Frances Valentine, a luxury brand of women’s shoes and accessories that maintains a similar aesthetic and message.

“As our daughter got older, Kate wanted to be an example to her with our marketing,” said Andy Spade, referring to the couple’s 13-year-old daughter Frances. “Oversexualizing women as objects is not [who we are]. We don’t like it, we don’t support it, and we think there’s more to women than that.”

The Way Forward

In recent years, an increasing number of brands and designers have been stepping up to vocally challenge historical themes.

Designer Rebecca Minkoff, for instance, has woven nods to feminism into both the identity and marketing of her label since its launch in 2001. And last month, in collaboration with the second worldwide Women’s March, she took the message a step further when she unveiled RM Superwomen, a social media channel for women to share experiences and conversations around “fearlessness.”

“We launched a full campaign profiling the leaders of the Women’s March movement, along with key influencers, actresses and trailblazers, highlighting their mission and individual voices,” Minkoff said.

Other designers, such as Prabal Gurung, Aurora James and Tory Burch, have been using their public personas and social media platforms to send pointed messages about gender roles and the rights of women and other minority groups.

Times Up Me Too Advertising

On the eve of New York Fashion Week, for instance, James helped to organize a launch party to promote “Together We Rise,” the book by the organizers of the Women’s March. And Gurung, who often cites Gloria Steinem as his inspiration, posted a thoughtful online message last month in support of Time’s Up.

“Fashion was once an isolated medium, often considered frivolous for its celebration of glamour — devoid of substance,” he wrote. “But now more than ever, this visual medium is proving it can be an important factor in communicating powerful values and ideals, not only for us designers, who do use fashion as a vehicle to tell our stories, but also for all people around the world.”

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