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When to protest about sexualisation

08 July 2016

There are good ways of responding to ‘sexified’ adverts, says Peter Graystone

I HAVE a banned photo in front of me. I acquired it entirely legally. It is in the catalogue of the clothing retailer Jack Wills. To receive it through the post, I had to do two things — tick a box to affirm that I am over 18, and persuade myself that I won’t look ridiculous in clothes marketed at someone 30 years younger than me.

In the catalogue, five young adults have taken a cottage for the weekend in an unfeasibly sunny coastal town, while wearing clothes only from that brand. We see them on the beach, drinking and dancing in the evening, and lolling around in their underwear, as they wake up next morning. It is the caption “Midnight Mischief” and the underwear images to which the Advertising Standards Authority took exception. It concluded that the adverts were “sufficiently sexualised to be inappropriate . . . and breached the Code”. As a result, the catalogue is now unavailable.

It is not difficult to see the photo, however, because several newspapers protested their outrage by publishing them in full colour. Obviously, none of these newspapers require buyers to affirm that they are over 18.

I need to confess at this point that I am no stranger to slumming round underdressed on a Saturday morning. I am never going to appear in a fashion catalogue, however. I am not so much Calvin Klein; more Calvin Coolidge. So I recognise that the hypocrisy of the incensed newspapers is worse than the titillation of the original advert.

I am, though, disturbed by the escalating sexualisation of advertising to sell mundane products. The email promotion that currently vexes me most is for Virgin Trains East Coast. “From the curtains to the carpets, from the lounges to the loos, everything is being sexified,” it boasts. I took my disapproval to Twitter, and this exchange followed:

Me: I am dismayed that my journey on @VirginTrains is “being sexified”. I want a timely, fair-priced journey to Scotland, not a porno-ride.

Virgin Trains: Hi Peter. Could you explain a little further?

Me: Your advert says my journey will be “hot to trot” and “sexy”. I don’t want sex on your train. Just a safe journey.

Virgin Trains: Ah, I see. You can opt out of the emails if you wish, Peter?

Me: Or you could opt out of the salaciousness in your advertising if you wish, Virgin?

There was no reply from Virgin Trains.

There are at least two ways in which Christians can respond to sexualised advertising. One is to stop purchasing offending products, and tell companies why they are doing so.

This can make a difference. In 2015, Abercrombie & Fitch made a decision to discontinue advertising that featured shirtless models and passionate couples. A spokesperson told the website Business Insider: “These changes were based on feedback from our customers and we are pleased to see that our updated imagery is resonating with them.” Every retailer’s website has a button that reads “Contact us” or something similar. We can politely use it to request change.

The second is actively to “guard your mind”, as St Paul put it. Just because an advert or a newspaper’s manufactured furore is eye-catching, you don’t have to dwell on it. Instead, “whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (Philippians 4.8). Positively pursue virtue and beauty, so that prurience is marginalised in your thinking.

Your choice as a consumer and your spirituality as a Christian are both powerful tools. Use them.


Peter Graystone develops pioneering mission projects for the Church Army.

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