Sex and billboards

Sex and billboards

by Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

July 1 and 8, 2008

Recently, a billboard for a garment retailer went up along EDSA featuring a model with no upper clothing with her back to the camera. This would have been just another in the long series of billboards showing partial nudity along the main highway except for one thing: the actress is a prime time star with a rather wholesome image. Expectedly, some critical comments went the round in the Internet, prompting the manager of the actress to defend the billboard as simply a matter of “fashion”, “classy”, and a sign of the actress’ growth.

The critical comments are not surprising given the popularity of this actress among the young. While we have seen the steady increase in body exposure in billboards in the past years, a topless female youth figure in a billboard crosses a clear line that deserves careful evaluation. Of course, any nudity in this most public of mass media should be the subject of critical discussion in the public interest. Images of such size which even young people in passing cars can see should be subject to scrutiny if only to ensure that they are not offensive to community norms of propriety.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP) acknowledges this fact. Its Code of Ethics states that “being an integral part of mass media, we are cognizant of the powerful influence of outdoor advertising on society”. Surprisingly, though, a search through the Code will not show any occurrence of the words “community”, “norms”, “appropriate”, or even “decency”.

The Code does say that “materials that show partial or total nudity or skimpy attire or any visuals/copy/elements that suggest sexual stimulation or satisfaction or gratification.” The use of the verb “suggest” leaves plenty of room for interpretation, however, and without an overarching principle of community decency to anchor the provision, a lot of nudity can slip through.

Thus, I find the Code too narrow in its ethical guidance on billboards, especially given the latter’s power over the public mind. Anyone who remembers what school was like would remember the posters that were everywhere – in classrooms and around campus. Teachers use visual displays to communicate important messages related to personal values, virtue, attitudes and even behaviors. Psychologists have long established the powerful impact of such visual messages on people, especially the young.

What ethical issues arise from the use of sexual images in billboards? The first relates to the major purpose of advertising itself which is to inform the public about the features and benefits of particular products and services. In fact, it is this “right of the public to know” which gives fundamental protection to all mass media in a democratic, free-market society. Consumers need truthful, relevant and timely information to make rational decisions about purchases. When sexual images such as nudity are used in billboards, in what sense do they inform the public?

In most cases, sexual images are not used to inform at all but merely to persuade and influence, not through rational means but through subtle implication. Researchers Lambiase and Reichert have identified three ways that sexual messages are integrated in advertising in order to influence consumer thinking: sexual attractiveness for the consumer, likely engagement in sexual behavior, and feelings of being sexy or sexual.

The trouble with such persuasive uses of sexual images is that they discourage rational decision-making and amount to little more than psychological manipulation. Obviously, advertisements which manipulate consumers do not deserve the protection of mass media which are supposedly meant to inform the public.


As I argued in last week’s column, the first problem with sexual images in billboards is that they are essentially not informative and, worse, psychologically manipulative. Thus, they fail to meet the requirements of legitimate advertising and mass media.

Plato has been quoted as saying that “the body intrudes … into our investigations, interrupting, disturbing, distracting, and preventing us from getting a glimpse of the truth.” More recently, psychologists have been analyzing the impact of psychological manipulation in sexual advertising or what they neutrally term as “sex appeals”. They have found that while sex appeals improved the viewers’ positive thoughts about and recall of the advertising message, this came at a price to the viewer. Sex appeals tend to interfere with thoughts about the product and the message as well as inhibit counter-arguments in the mind of the viewer. In short, sex appeals short-circuit the mind’s natural rationality and replace this with positive feelings associated with sexual imagery.

A second issue that has been raised against sexual images in advertising, and which applies more strongly to billboards, is that they send essentially unnatural and, as a result, demeaning messages. Business ethicist John Cohan argues that such ads “redefine attractiveness from something natural to an unattainable ideal”. The utter artificial flawlessness of human bodies in 50-foot billboards implies an essentially demeaning and manipulative message. Jacobson and Mazur argue that “by inviting women to compare their unimproved reality with [such] … perfection, advertising erodes self-esteem, then offers to sell it back – for a price.”

Thus, this style of advertising dissuades against the cultivation of inner beauty. Not surprisingly, such ads have cultivated the desire of women to aspire for mythical standards of beauty which are often only possible through costly, and sometimes dangerous, surgical intervention. The reported cases of disfigurement, injuries and death related to cosmetic surgery operations in the country is an inevitable result of this obsession with an unattainable physical beauty propagated in part by sexual advertising.

A third ethical objection against sex-oriented billboards is that they erode traditional conventions of virtue and modesty among women and, therefore, slowly undermine the country’s social fabric. Women, because of their tender qualities and crucial nurturing roles in the family and in the community have always been afforded a high level of respect in Philippine society. Although we have come a long way from the Maria Clara ideal, Filipina women are still raised in the exercise of virtues such as modesty and prudence. These are not trivial considerations for a society which values the family and the raising of upright children. By extolling immodesty in the highways of the land, these billboards are conditioning the young generation to forget traditional community values.

A final and practical problem is that these billboards pose a safety threat to the motoring public. Billboards, of course, rely on their ability to attract attention and, therefore, send a message. But sexual images attract attention much longer than necessary for the message to be sent. The driver who understandably lingers too long to take in the alluring images may find himself in a collision before he knows it. These billboards are found in highways, after all, where high speeds are to be expected. Shouldn’t considerations of public safety override the commercial interests of companies?

Companies should take care not to let their pursuit of profit override their basic sense of decency and concern for the community. Perhaps, in specific contexts and for exclusively mature audiences, nudity has a place in advertising. But it doesn’t belong in billboards.