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Loga Virahsawmy writes about sexism in advertising and the February 2011 launch of the Association of Advertising Agencies (AAA) Code of Advertising Practice for Mauritius.

Mauritius: The little red book

Loga Virahsawmy

No, it is not the Little Red Book of China’s late Mao Zedong, published in 1966. This little red book was launched in February 2011 by the Association of Advertising Agencies (AAA) on its Code of Advertising Practice for Mauritius.

Mao’s Little Red Book owed its popularity to the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: let us hope that the Mauritian little red book will gain similar popularity for being proactive in trying to put an end to sexism in advertising.

For too long women have been the main image in advertisements; usually for products that have nothing to do with them. I have often struggled with the fact that I was living in a democracy that allowed women’s naked bodies to be used to advertise everything from alcohol to foreign monetary exchange.

Three years ago I fought tooth and nail for the removal of an alcohol advertisement. A woman was dancing in a vodka bottle with three ‘randy’ men in provocative positions on the outside of the bottle. The advertisement said ‘Intelligent Nightlife’. These ads are ubiquitous, in Mauritius and elsewhere: So much so that many have stopped paying attention. But what are we telling young people with this kind of advertisement?

The fight to change advertising standards in my country has been a long one. I twice went to the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) for hearings. Fortunately the third time I was called and the former Director General of the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation wrote to tell me that a beer advertisement would be removed. Immediate action was taken but it was difficult to understand how our national broadcaster could do such a thing to women in the first place. The advertisement showed two girls in hot pants carrying jugs of beer to a man sitting on a throne. They sat on his lap and later joined him for a spin in his car.

Of course the worst ad I remember was for a t-shirt company. The advert showed only the large breasts of a woman beneath a white t-shirt on which was printed: ‘I wish these were brains’. Thankfully the Sex Discrimination Division was quick to take action and their flying squad went all over Mauritius removing the advertisement.

For my efforts to empower women and help our children grow up in an equal society I received hate mail. One read: ‘Look at yourself in the mirror and think whether you are worth putting up in an advertisement. Is it jealously that makes you behave so disgustingly. Do you want to spoil our beautiful Mauritian society?’ I have never been able to understand how this kind of advertisement can enhance the beauty of Mauritius.

In October 2007, Gender Links, with the collaboration of Media Watch Organisation, launched its research on Gender and Advertisements. The launch was followed by a workshop with members of the AAA. They were given guidelines on how to create their own Code of Ethics on gender.

One year later, Pria Thakoor, Former Chair of AAA gave a great presentation on women and advertisements at the 2008 Gender and Media Summit in Johannesburg. She condemned sexism in advertising and told how Gender Links and Media Watch Organisation had helped open her eyes to the problem.

Although the AAA does not yet have a Code of Ethics on Gender, their little red book is definitely an achievement. Article 21 reads: ‘Advertising must take in consideration the evolution of the respective roles of women and men in society…It must represent women as equally capable, responsible and independent in the conduct of their activities. In addition, neither the picture of a caricature denigrating the role of any person in a couple, nor the representation of an excessive dependence of the character with respect to the products promoted must be displayed. Advertising must respect the dignity of women and men.’

I thought that this little red book might herald the end of sexist advertisements in Mauritius. But alas, how wrong and naive I am. Billboards are currently displaying a giant advert for Stag Malta beer. The advertisement shows a bottle opener on the breasts of a woman. I am left wondering what the breasts of a woman or a can opener on the breasts of a woman has to do with beer?

Yes, the little red book does mention that ‘women must not be treated as objects in advertising especially when her image has no direct relation with the promoted product or service.’ But the little red book will only become popular when, like its Chinese predecessor, it becomes a visible and much-used guide. Hopefully the death of sexist advertising will not be far behind.

* Loga Virahsawmy is the Director of the Gender Links Mauritius and Francophone office. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.