Banned in the USA: Have sexual images in advertising gone too far? (Or not far enough?)

Abercrombie and FitchAbercrombie and Fitch
Abercrombie and Fitch, frat-boy standard and symbol of Americana, got so much flak from conservative groups for their last hyper-sexual catalog that it was forced out of print in the States. But that hasn't stopped them from continuing to push the envelope, and the latest flesh-filled edition will be sold in Europe only. Apparently, Bruce Weber's homoerotic images of naked boys frolicking across the prairie just make apple pie Americans nauseous. Still, I'm confused. I mean, male and female nudes have long been a staple of western civilization in the art realm, yet it's okay to have highly suggestive, overtly kinky American Apparel billboards all over the country? From what I remember from the last Abercrombie catalog, the images, shot by a highly respected photographer aren't graphic in any way, shape or form, just beautiful nudes. And the whole moment sparks the question: Why are Americans still so prudish about nudity anyway?

I remember a story I edited at Jane magazine a few years ago regarding the differences between what is acceptable in advertising in the States versus overseas. Many people are shocked to hear that a significant amount of the images we see, especially in the racy liquor, beauty and fashion realms, are toned down versions of the original (many times, a bikini or similar is digitally added to models that are nude in the ads in Europe), meant to appear fit for American consumption. "But children are exposed to these images!" say many Americans. Well, it seems like the only fallout is that many Euros grow up sans all the immature hang ups about nudity, and that explains why American kids laugh and blush (or worse, feel ashamed) when they happen to come across a birthday suit, a practice that conceivably follows them into adulthood. Am I suggesting that kids should be exposed to overtly sexual images in advertising? Definitely not. But I do admit to suggesting that perhaps we've gotten far too puritanical when it comes to a fact of life as natural as nudity.

Scandinavia is currently experiencing conflict in this arena as well, but the issue is with vulgarity, not naked bodies. While Sweden steadfastly refuses to impose bans on advertising because they feel it would undermine freedom of speech, neighbors Norway and Denmark, who have specific limits on the use of such images for commercial gain, disagree. Says the BBC:

"In Norway, sexist advertising has been banned since 2003. The ban forms part of a much broader package of legal limits on advertising, protecting the depiction of religion, sexuality, race and gender.
'Basically, if something is offensive or it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable when they look at it, it shouldn't be done,' explained Sol Olving, head of Norway's Kreativt Forum, an association of the country's top advertising agencies. 'Naked people are wonderful, of course, but they have to be relevant to the product. You could have a naked person advertising shower gel or a cream, but not a woman in a bikini draped across a car."

Okay, this makes sense. But note that even this rather conservative leader suggests that a little nudity never hurt anyone. In fact, they insist they're not out to ban it, and as long as it appears tastefully done (ah, but tastes vary so wildly!), it's no problem. Their objections arise when they feel the advertiser has crossed the line: For example, a recent ad showed a nurse lying on a bed with male underwear on her face, implying sex between herself and a patient. It was banned after cries of outrage from union workers.

"People in these different occupations already have problems with sexual discrimination,' says ombudsman Henrik Oe. 'You cannot play on the male fantasy that a patient can have sex with a nurse just to sell a product. These areas of employment are already ones where women are already vulnerable to sexual harassment,' he added."

Good point sir.

Similarly, that's how fashion darling Tom Ford found himself knocked from the throne of his legendary high Italian status: According to fashion bible Women's Wear Daily: "Italy's advertising watchdog, the Institute for Advertising Self-Discipline (IAP), has banned Tom Ford Eyewear ads from national media. A close-up photo of a woman wearing the brand's sunglasses with a man's finger in her mouth was deemed by IAP to be 'markedly vulgar' and, as such, it 'transcends the limits of simple bad taste and offends the sensibility' of viewers. In addition, the committee believes the 'scene evokes an offending and abusive act against women, which degrades the dignity of the person." It should also be stated that the photo was one in a series that included nudity, but this was the only image deemed markedly vulgar. Ford's ad has sparked so very much controversy (a post on the ad on Shine was the subject of spirited debate), that one wonders if all the extra publicity has him feeling shamed or simply elated. All that controversy, as any publicist worth their salt will tell you, is simply priceless.

Of course, I'm all for free expression (even for advertisers trying to sell a product), and all this talk of censorship makes me nervous. But there's also a difference between tasteful nudity and images that portray violence against women, and insinuate that it's ever okay, even within the fantasy realm of a commercial image. It's everyone's responsibility to police such images. Still, there's a very fine line between condemnation and outright censorship.

What do you think? Should we have banned the Abercrombie catalog just because it contains nudity? How sexy is too sexy when it comes to advertising?