German justice minister: sex shouldn′t sell | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.04.2016

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German justice minister: sex shouldn't sell

Justice Minister Heiko Maas wants to prohibit sexist ads. Tobacco marketing is on the chopping block as well. Experts, however, aren't so sure that bans are the best way to go.

An ad for underwear company sloggi showing women in underwear on bikes with the headline Tour de sloggi. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/N. Maeterlinck)

Controversial: this Belgian underwear ad referencing the Tour de France

Germans politicians aren't happy with many of the ads consumers see on TV, in movie theaters or on billboards. If Berlin has its way, advertising for cigarettes and tobacco products, as well as sexist commercials could soon be a thing of the past.

Christian Schmidt, Germany's minister of food and agriculture, has announced that he plans to prohibit ads for cigarettes on public posters and in movie theaters. In Germany, every movie is preceded by 15 to 30 minutes of commercials - but if the movie's rating allows minors into the theater, clips of pretty people smoking shouldn't be among them, Schmidt says.

"Especially children and youth should not get the impression that smoking is harmless fun," news agency Agence France-Presse (afp) quotes the minister.

Heiko Maas speaking in the Bundestag. (Photo: picture alliance/dpa/R. Jensen)

Maas wants to prohibit ads that objectify women and men

Justice minister Heiko Maas is focusing on another, broader target. He wants to ban sexist advertising. News magazine "Spiegel" reports that the proposal's goal is creating a "modern gender image."

According to the magazine, Maas' idea was also motivated by the events of New Year's Eve in Cologne, where hundreds of women were robbed and sexually assaulted.

'Companies have the right to advertize their product'

"I don't think bans are the be-all and end-all, to be honest," Sven Kommer, a media educator and professor at the Aachen Institute of Technology (RWTH Aachen), told DW. "Just because you ban cigarette ads, the issue of kids smoking doesn't go away."

The number of children between the ages of 12 and 17 who smoke is declining in Germany. In 2015, it reached a historical low of 7.8 percent, according to a study of the Federal Center for Health Education. The German Cigarette Association is using this number to emphasize that the problem has really been minimized.

"The reasoning behind the proposal is youth protection, but there is no basis for that, as the current numbers show us," the director of the Cigarette Association, Jan Mücke, said to AFP.

The Left Party and the Greens support the proposal. But marketing expert Sascha Albrecht is more than skeptical.

Sascha Albrecht. (Photo: Werbeagentur Onelio)

Albrecht wants to protect his children from cigarettes and alcohol as well, but says ad bans aren't the way to do that

"These companies have the right to advertise their products," Albrecht, who's the director of ad agency Onelio in Dusseldorf, told DW. "I think they should put pictures of black lungs on the packs so that people know they're harming themselves when they smoke. But cool, creative ad billboards should not be prohibited."

Society as watchdog against sexist ads

The marketing expert finds even clearer words for the proposed ban of sexist advertising.

"That's impossible," Albrecht said. "Who gets to define what is sexist and what isn't? Would each commercial first have to be sent to a review board that makes the final call? This simply cannot be regulated."

There is an institution in Germany that accepts complaints about offensive or inappropriate advertising: the German Council for Advertising Standards.

"With the Advertising Council, we already have a well-working system," Kommer said. "Whenever there is a problematic campaign, our society is very good at catching it and speaking up immediately."

One example for this took place in the small town of Triberg in southern Germany. The town's mayor had two parking spaces marked as "men's parking," using the silhouette of a naked woman leaning on her arms with an arched back. The slogan to go along with this, supposedly advertising Triberg's tourism assets: "Steep mountains, wet valleys."

The outcry was swift and strong and the picture was painted over.

A billboard showing a woman from behind removing her pants with the word sexism sprayed across it. (Photo: picture-alliance/M. Latz)

Citizen watchdogs: someone sprayed 'sexism' across this billboard advertising a lingerie store

At the root of the discussion about what kind of ads to ban - and for what products advertising is even allowed - lies the question of efficiency. What effects do commercials actually have on people? Ad-agency owner Sascha Albrecht is convinced that children don't start smoking because they see a Lucky Strike commercial - another reason he opposes a potential ban on cigarette ads.

Media educater Sven Kommer is not convinced by that argument.

"Tobacco companies say 'We do advertise our products, but these ads don't actually work'," Kommer said. "I find that hard to believe."

He also worries about the effects of ads that portray women in a sexualized way.

"Sexist commercials don't turn a young man into a sexist chauvinist, but they can skew his perception of women."

Ads and marketing play a part in forming a person's worldview, Kommer says - and as society, we need to think about what we want this worldview to be.

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