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Andrea Newell headshot

PETA’s Rejected Super Bowl Ad: Silly or a Symptom of a Bigger Problem?

Fox, host of this year’s Super Bowl XLV (which is aiming to be the greenest on record), has rejected the most recent PETA ad promoting vegetarianism, refusing to air it during Sunday’s game unless PETA fixed several “problems.” Their list of objectionable actions include a woman doing the following:

  • Licking a pumpkin

  • Touching her breast with her hand while eating broccoli

  • Pumpkin from behind between legs

  • Rubbing pelvic region with pumpkin

  • Screwing herself with broccoli (fuzzy)

  • Asparagus on her lap appearing as if it is ready to be inserted into vagina

  • Licking eggplant

  • Rubbing asparagus on breast

To be honest, this explicit list might be more cringeworthy than the ad itself (caution: the video contains the above explicit sexual content), but as Brian Merchant of Treehugger pointed out, the continuous stream of shock ads PETA churns out pretty much beg to be banned or rejected, perhaps so they can cry foul while drumming up more attention and outrage for their cause. Although, it’s hard to see how whining about their sexist ads being rejected encourages people to support the humane treatment of animals or go vegetarian.

'Veggie Love': PETA's Banned Super Bowl Ad

Merchant makes a good point that the ongoing cycle of these campaigns is rather tiresome and he also denounces the fact that they then hide behind the green movement to justify their actions (like Renewable Girls). Change.org’s Jen Nedeau, among others, posted a condemnation of the sexist nature of the PETA ad in the form of a letter to the organization.

It will be interesting to see on Sunday night what ads Fox did allow, and if any are similarly outrageous.

We Now See More Ads in One Year Than People Used to See in a Lifetime The PETA sex campaigns to draw attention to their cause are only a drop in the bucket. A 2008 Ms. Magazine article estimated that people are bombarded with as many as 3000 ads per day (depicting both women and men), and many of them are sexist (discriminating on the basis of sex, devaluing a gender), objectifying (seeing a person as only an object), or exploitative (using someone for your own selfish ends).

Product after product (and, in PETA’s case – cause) are promoted using various images of skinny, well-endowed, scantily-clad, mostly Caucasian women in sexually suggestive poses. Using sex to sell is such a common, overused convention that the products themselves become unmemorable, leading companies to create even more provocative and explicit ads to set themselves apart instead of simply selling their products on their own merits.

The PETA video, Chew On This, is actually an extremely compelling argument for vegetarianism complete with health facts, disturbing dairy and beef industry video of cruelty to animals, and narration by two articulate, clothed women and one man (caution: this video contains extremely disturbing images of cruelty to animals). The PETA GoVeg.com website is full of facts and recipes without a suggestive picture in sight. Why doesn’t PETA use this stronger video and website to promote vegetarianism? Also, PETA recently scored a huge victory after exposing Lipton Tea's inhumane animal testing. Lipton agreed to stop animal testing before PETA could launch a (sexist or otherwise) worldwide campaign.

Chew on This

So There’s Sexism in the Media – So What?
What’s one more exploitative ad in a sea of them? Ms. Magazine’s Caroline Heldman argues: “A steady diet of exploitative, sexually provocative depictions of women feeds a poisonous trend in women’s and girl’s perceptions of their bodies, one that has recently been recognized by social scientists as self-objectification—viewing one’s body as a sex object to be consumed by the male gaze…Numerous studies since [the term was coined by University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson in 1997] have shown that girls and women who self-objectify are more prone to depression and low self-esteem and have less faith in their own capabilities, which can lead to diminished success in life.”

Is objectification always a bad thing? Naomi Rockler-Gladen says, “To some degree, objectification is not necessarily a problem. Human beings like to look at others as physical beings, and individuals sometimes choose to present themselves to others primarily as objects through their dress or behavior. Objectivity becomes an issue when it is frequent, and when people are commonly presented only as objects and not as subjects as well.”

While many adults can keep sexualized ads in perspective, there is no way to completely shield children from this constant barrage. Even strong parental guidance can have a hard time counteracting these blatant messages. A SparkSummit video contends that “never before has the sexualization of girls in the media been as prominent, explicit, and had such long-lasting harm on girls and women.” The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reports, “The more hours of TV a boy watches, the more sexist his perspective becomes.”

What About Consent? But what about the women who consent to being in the ads? How can they be objectified if they choose to show themselves in a sexualized manner? They aren’t being forced to participate, after all (although there are documented cases of coercion, this discussion is about mainstream media and willing actors and models). Many women contend that owning their own sexuality is their right.

Rockler-Gladen counters, “However, the issue of objectification isn't just about individual women's decisions. It's about the impact of this kind of representation on society. That is, a woman may choose to model for Playboy—but once her image is in the magazine, the issue isn't just her choice anymore. It's about how that representation of women affects the world. Put it in another way, a woman might choose to model in Playboy—but all women collectively did not choose to be represented in this manner.”

Are There Actual Consequences to Sexism in Media? What about those people that do objectify women in real life?

While studies have not concretely linked objectification in the media directly to social problems such as violence against women, eating disorders, and promiscuity, it is certainly a contributing factor. As media objectification is at an all-time high, other societal problems also continue to be prevalent:

- Violence against women (date rape, stranger rape, domestic violence).
- Body image issues, eating disorders and promiscuity - pressure on teens and women to behave more sexually
- Human trafficking (in the U.S. and globally).

Linda Geffin, Harris County Texas Attorney’s Office, said that human trafficking is the fast growing criminal enterprise worldwide ($28 billion a year), even rivaling the drug trade. Dallas law enforcement are preparing heavy patrols for this Super Bowl weekend, where thousands of children will be trafficked in to take advantage of male fans with money. For last year’s game in Miami, an estimated 10,000 prostitutes (including children and human trafficking victims) came to town for the event.

Whether or not people choose to believe that objectification in the media and advertising contributes to these problems or has a detrimental effect on women and girls—actually selling products and promoting causes on their merits and toning down sexualization in pop culture instead of using sex for shock value probably wouldn’t cause anyone long-term harm.

Author’s note: If you want to use your voice to promote or protest ads, see fellow Triple Pundit writer Jonathan Mariano’s article on the Add or Delete advertising social movement.

View Girls, Sexuality and the Media
View Sexualization of Girls in the Media Ad image credits: Objectification of Women in Media

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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