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27 February 2007

Raunch culture - a barrel full of laughs?


Thanks to the Sunday Star Times (25 February) WHAM now has a name for the use of women's bodies as product promotional accessories - raunch culture.  We thought the feminist movement had done away with the practice for good, but now it's back with a vengeance.

The term has been coined by American writer Ariel Levy who argues that soft-porn culture has invaded representations of women because of a mistaken belief that slutty behaviour can be a form of empowerment and self-expression.

Glance across the covers of magazines targeted mainly at men and there are the bodies, selling everything from dive gear to motorbikes. Go to a product launch or promotion and the lightly clad pretty young things are there handing out drinks.

We first really noticed the trend last spring when Motorola launched a billboard campaign using a gauze-clad lass with oh-so-dead eyes to sell a cellphone. To us, it seemed counter-productive - raising questions about what Motorola thought about the merits of its product and those who might buy it.

But Auckland University senior marketing lecturer Rick Starr says New Zealand is caught up in "an intensification of sexual imagery sweeping the west. Pornography is available at a click of a mouse. Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson are famous for sexual exploits which would once have been seen as shameful. Things which would virtually have resulted in an honour killing a decade ago, now just result in increasing people's celebrity."

This may well explain Motorola NZ's decision to use a promotion it had previously run overseas. But it also raises questions about their business acumen and political nous.

New Zealand is a distinctive and secular society, very unlike the United States where rampant religiosity is likely to have created a much larger guilt-driven demand for porn than we have here. It's also hard to imagine our celebrities indulging in the sort of tawdry exploits that Paris and Pamela are known for. In other words, the billboards may not have been a good marketing decision.

Then, on the political front, why was Motorola involved in a form of social engineering?

Most Kiwis would probably agree that healthy female sexuality is a good thing. Indeed, the right to sexual equality and expression was one of the big drivers of the feminist movement. The gratuitous use by Motorola of female bodies to sell its phones is in direct conflict with these values.

In WHAM's view, marketers need to send raunch culture packing. It demeans women. It makes it more difficult for youngsters to understand the roles they will need to play as adults and the appropriate way to express their sexuality.

It also adds an unwelcome dynamic to our increasingly emancipated workplace relationships. Highly sexualised entertainment or promotions can turn work social functions into cringe territory, scoring the occasional marital trainwreck along the way. 

There is something very sad about young girls being groomed - often by their mothers - as objects for men to look at. All the evidence seems to indicate that this is a road to low self-esteem, eating disorders and the like. If that's not enough, it's also dangerous - many young and not-so-young men are not wired to tell the difference between sexualised play-acting and the real thing.

As an international company marketing in New Zealand, one would expect Motorola's executives to take account of the local culture. But some locals are no better.

Francis Hooper, designer for Kiwi fashion house World,  has defended the label's decision to sell t-shirts in children's sizes emblazoned with the slogan Future Porn Star. "It's an adult purchase for children. As a fashion designer I'm being humorous and irreverent."

Yeah right. Sexploitation of children is a barrel full of laughs.

- Trevor Walton

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