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What is the billboard doing?

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 24 November 2010

In a rare move, the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) recently upheld a complaint against an advertiser. The successful complaint concerned billboards for Calvin Klein Underwear, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. Over the last few weeks, the ASB decision has been met with much criticism implying that the Bureau has bowed to killjoys and wowsers in the community.

For example, Kellie Hush in the "fashion police" section of the Sydney Morning Herald on 28 October, wrote, "Now 40 Australians have had their say, with the Advertising Standards Board last week recommending the Calvin Klein billboard starring Lara Stone and three male models be pulled down because it was 'suggestive of violence and rape' and the image 'was demeaning to women'.

It's gone and hopefully those 40 protesters can now sleep at night." Hush went on to assure her readers that actually the jeans in the ad are "seriously good jeans", and "worth road-testing if you're not easily offended."


The type of response that Hush is making is that images of sex are after all only images, and the most an image can do is provide offense to those with a thin skin. This is a well-worn response to complaints about images of sex. Some of those who argue along the same lines, like the American writer Nadine Strossen, imply that those who are offended are like children who scream out in a cinema because of not being able to tell the difference between reality and, say, the image of a train speeding towards them on the screen.

However, what Hush and those like her fail to realize is that most of those who protested the Calvin Klein billboard were concerned with what the billboard does, not with what it contains, shows or represents. This sounds odd, because after all, billboards don't do anything, do they? The very idea sounds ludicrous. But I don't think that idea sounds ludicrous to the Calvin Klein advertising agency, which has been paid to design the billboard precisely to do something. And if we figure out what that something is, we can come to a much clearer understanding of the problem that the billboard presents.

Image courtesy of Melinda Tankard Reist 

This question of what the billboard does, however, is not one that the ASB explores. The ASB case report is primarily concerned with what the billboard shows. The case report describes the billboard at issue in clipped flat prose:

Image on the left shows three men and one woman. Two of the men are wearing jeans and no tops, and the top buttons of their jeans are undone. The third man is wearing a dark shirt which is unbuttoned to the waist and we cannot see if he is wearing jeans.

The woman is wearing a black bra and one of the straps is falling off her shoulder. She appears to be naked otherwise.

The woman is lying on her back with her head resting on the thighs of one of the men, and he is looking down at her. Another man is crouched over her and appears to be about to kiss her neck. He has an arm around her waist, and the seated man has his hand resting on his back as though he is pushing him down on the woman.

The third man is sat on the ground looking away from the others. The image is in black and white, and has red lines which appear to have been painted on the left and right hand sides of the image. In the bottom right hand corner it says, "Calvin Klein Jeans. X"

The image on the right is of a woman sat on a bench with her legs splayed. She is wearing what appear to be wet skintight jeans and a black sleeveless top. This image is also in black and white and has red lines to the left and right. There is no text on this image.

(There are also red splotches or splashes like blood on the billboard).


The ASB simply describes the look of the two images on the billboard. It then constructs a story that connects the two images:

The Board considered the depiction of the woman with the three men to be highly sexualised and clearly suggestive of sexual behaviour. The Board considered that whilst the act depicted could be consensual, the overall impact and most likely takeout is that the scene is suggestive of violence and rape. The Board considered that the image was demeaning to women by suggesting that she is a plaything of these men. It also demeans men by implying sexualised violence against women.

In other words, the ASB conjectured that the billboard narrates a story of sexual assault. This was also the view of many of the complainants, who read the billboard as a story of gang rape, glamourised as a luxury brand.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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