FEMFACTS
28 Jan 2019

Does sexism pay? Not with these Croatian activists on duty

Sexism is all too often viewed as an appropriate marketing tool by Croatian media and advertisers. But now a group of activists have come up with a great way to prove them wrong using both social media and the law.  

Guest Mavens
Nataša Vajagić NewsMavens, Europe
Does sexism pay? Not with these Croatian activists on duty - NewsMavens
Sexism post from Seksizam naš svagdašnji, Instagram

If a screenshot of your article appears on Facebook with a red stamp saying “Sexism” (Seksizam), there’s a good chance you’ll soon be hearing from a lot of unhappy readers. If the same happens with your advertisement, you’ll probably also hear from the Ombudswoman for Gender Equality, notifying you that you're in breach of the Gender Equality Act and asking you to take it down.

This is all thanks to the efforts of the Facebook page “Our Daily Sexism” (Seksizam naš svagdašnji) a group that flags sexist ads, media articles, and statements by public figures in Croatia. Over the past two years, the page has managed to take down several misogynist marketing ads and persuaded media outlets to apologize and remove them. 

The page, along with the Instagram account of the same name, is run by the Center for Civil Initiatives Poreč (CCI), a human rights organization from Poreč (Croatia) whose activists use it to call out everyday examples of sexism.

How did it all start?

In January 2017, a team of volunteers from the Croatian portal Libela spent a month reearching how the most popular news portals in Croatia wrote about women. The results were not great -- Libela discovered that 4.5% of all articles (427 out of 9,515) in Croatia's most popular news portals  had explicitly sexist headlines, leads or subheadings. This means that each of the analyzed media outlets had published, on average, approximately 100 sexist articles per month.

One of the first articles to receive the “red stamp” was published on the news portal Index, which also had the highest percentage of sexist articles. The headline read “Bianca, I’d fill you like an empty check” and continued with:

Bianca D’Aponte is an Italian starlet whose surname instigated many jokes on Instagram, where she has over 40 thousand followers. Many have noted that they would “fill her like an empty cheque”. Take a look and find out why.

The research also showed that, on average, only 18% of the analyzed articles mentioned women in their headlines at all. Put together, these numbers showed how inadequate the representation of women in the Croatian media was.

The media must be held to account when it is caught reinforcing negative stereotypes about women and gender roles.  Sexism affects every reader, and it is deeply rooted in personal attitudes, learned patterns, and privileged roles that are difficult to dismiss. 

If the media or advertisers are called out for portraying women as sexual objects, this criticism is often answered with the claim that it’s the women’s fault because they have agreed to be depicted in this way. Of course, this explanation simply allows the publisher avoid accountability. For example, if a news portal publishes an article titled "What do you say Kara, are you up for that verb we can make from your name?" (in Croatian language, “kara” is a slang word for penis or having sex), people won’t automatically identify it as misogynistic -- instead they are likely to blame the woman for photographing herself in a revealing shirt.

These dismissive attitudes seep into other parts of everyday life as well -- unwanted touching in the workplace is shrugged off and justified with "he didn’t mean anything by it" and women are discouraged from reporting it.  

That is why asking a society to recognize sexism in the public sphere is the first step towards understanding and tackling the problem. If we don’t become aware of the sexism around us, we will only continue to reinforce harmful stereotypes and misogynistic discourse.

So, after Libela's investigation into sexism in Croatia was completed, it became clear that something needed to be done -- and that’s how “Our Daily Sexism” was born.

Success Stories

There are several mechanisms in Croatia that can be used to call out sexism, and “Our Daily Sexism” uses them all quite successfully. The Facebook page was created in March 2017, and has made over 800 posts to date. Additionally, the most outrageously sexist or misogynistic posts, ads or articles are reported to the Ombudswoman for being in violation of Article 16(2) of the Gender Equality Act (GEA), which states:

"It is forbidden to publicly present and represent women and men in an offensive, disparaging or humiliating way with regard to their gender and sexual orientation".

Over the past two years, 8 such cases were reported to the Ombudswoman, who then asked the publishers to remove the offensive material.

This approach was a continuation of CCI’s previous work. For example, in 2016, the appliance company Electrolux released an ad for a vacuum cleaner, with the slogan "Every beauty deserves its beast".

CCI reported it to the Ombudswoman, who found the ad in breach of the GEA. Consequently, the company had to shut down the campaign and remove all promotional materials from media and sales outlets.

That same year, a large number of complaints were made to the Ombudswoman's office regarding the anti-abortion campaign "I Want to Live". The campaign included billboards which explicitly called women “killers”:

“I WANT TO LIVE

While you are celebrating Christmas my mom is planning to kill me. AND I WANT LAWS WHICH WILL PROTECT ME!”

The campaign also included video material with a child reading the following in a wailing voice:  

"Mom, what is this man doing? Mom, he is tearing up my leg! He’s going to rip it off! Mom, this hurts! Tell him to stop, he’s tearing up my arm! I’ll be a good girl, mom! Mom, help!

After it was reported, the Ombudswoman for children’s rights stated that the public campaign was in violation of women’s human rights. It was also declared to be misleading to the public, as the poster showed a pregnant women in an advanced state of pregnancy yet abortion is only allowed up to the 10th week of pregnancy in Croatia. She also condemned the video's use of a child to describe to how she was “being mutilated”.

Some of the other flagged advertisements presented the sexual harassment of women as being socially acceptable -- suggesting that women not only expect it -- but that they want it. This is a particularly harmful message, as women who suffer harassment are often accused of "teasing" and then blamed if the situation escalates into violence.

In 2017, Croatian Telecom launched a campaign for Deezer, an application offered through their BonBon mobile network. The video showed a running woman being catcalled by construction workers, along with this narration by a woman:

"Play a wicked song while you prepare your body for the beach and you will feel as if you have the longest legs in the world for construction workers to whistle for...handsome construction workers."

The ad was also reported to the Ombudswoman for Gender Equality, who sent a warning and recommendation to Croatian Telecom to take it down.

That same year, Electrolux published another sexist ad, this time for a giveaway. It said:

MAKE YOUR MOM HAPPY!

Your mom will spend an unbelievable 3,500 hours of her life washing dishes. Time is precious and you can give your mom 3,500 hours as a gift. How? Share your story and convince us that your mom is the best so you can win her an innovative Electrolux ComfortLift dishwasher (...).

Our Daily Sexism shared the sexist ad on Facebook, writing: “Wow, Electrolux strikes again! After a sexist vacuum cleaner ad, they now have a sexist giveaway! Will they ever stop stereotyping and promoting patriarchal gender roles? We'll never know!

After it was flagged on Our Daily Sexism, the giveaway was changed to:

Make your family happy! Your family will spend an unbelievable 3,500 hours of your life washing dishes. Time is precious and you can give your family 3500 hours as a gift. How? Share your story and convince us that your family is the best (...).

In 2018, the Ombudswoman also issued recommendations to other “flagged” companies.

The company AmRest Adria, responsible for KFC's business in Croatia, had to remove its Facebook post which was found to promote gender stereotypes related to household chores:

"Whether it's a mom, wife or girlfriend, surprise her with a basket of crispy chicken so she can get a day off without cooking."

Another example of stereotyping a woman's role in the family was found in Eurorobot’s campaign for the Roomba vacuum cleaner. The ad tells the story of a woman who had no time to clean the house after she gave birth to twins. Her husband was complaining that everything was dirty and the marriage was falling apart -- but then he saved the day by getting her a Roomba. This is the campaign, told in first person by the “lucky lady”:

"’I know, I too can see that everything is dirty, but I simply can’t find time’, I was telling myself.

The fights were getting more frequent. I felt like our marriage was falling apart.

But then one day, my husband came home with a big box under his arm. A gift for you, he said. The Roomba 800 series vacuum cleaner was in the box.

...AND IT’S NOT JUST THE COMMERCIALS...

Media reports are often very sensationalist and sexual objectification of women is quite common in such articles. Sexism is particularly easy to spot in the reports on women athletes: physical appearance and sexual objectification are always in the forefront, and their success in sport is barely mentioned. The same goes for women politicians and others in the public eye.

The headline reads: "You chose! Here is the prettiest Croatian female politician."

There are also voyeuristic articles, depicting women photographed on the street or on the beach without their knowledge or approval, sending the message that anyone is entitled to a woman's body at all times:

"Her presence in that atmosphere, in that eery building in the center of Croatia’s second biggest city is simply surreal. The prettiest homeless woman in the middle of hell."

As well as: "On the Bačvice beach in Split , it was very, very, very hot"; "Some say that the girl on the photo on the right was too naked to walk down the street. What do you think?"

Last year, a few articles like these were changed or deleted from Index -- the most visited media portal in Croatia, after Our Daily Sexism exposed them as sexist. The website owner and the journalists apologized and acknowledged that they needed to do a better job at avoiding sexism.

An apology was also issued by HRT, a Croatian public broadcaster after they played a video during the World Cup which treated violence against women as a joke. Titled “Zurka’s school for football fans”, the video featured a character played by a popular actor who issued this advice to Croatian football fans visiting Russia:

"If girls or women from the opposing team are aggressive, and you’re not a caveman who will hit a woman -- at least not outside of the house -- deal with them like a man.

Hit women where they are the weakest!

Women are weak for guys, money, cars and fur coats. Smack her in the mouth with your wallet, so that she bounces off the parked car right into a fur shop window!

[...] Russian, Ukrainian and Swedish cheerleaders can actually be quite hospitable, ha ha."  

After a reprimand from the Ombudswoman, the network decided not to show the video again.

Regardless, the World Cup inspired many other media outlets to portray women as sexual objects, especially those from Eastern European countries who are often mentioned derogatorily in the context of sex work, such as in the following:

"The offer was never bad; a girl with a condom is everything.

Here is what is being offered in Russia: Croatian football fans can't find normal girls for themselves."

SOMETIMES IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT WE STILL SEE THIS NOWADAYS ...

We’ll wrap this up with one of the worst examples that Our Daily Sexism has encountered yet, a product called "The hitting stick for the sexual education of women". The product attracted public attention last June with the following “instructions” on how to use it on a woman if she refused sexual intercourse:

If she just lays there like a log, smack 1x;

If she refuses to give a kiss to the “mister” -- 3x;

If she smells like a fish market -- smack 5x -- and send her to the bathroom;

If she has a “headache” again -- hit her until she really starts to ache.

After the Ombudswoman sent a warning  to the manufacturer, the company owner said that he didn't see anything controversial in the "humorous" product. However, the Offertissima stores, where it was available, decided to take it off the shelves.

IS IT REALLY STILL PROFITABLE TO BE SEXIST?

Many people were involved in creating the content described here. For an article to be published, a journalist and an editor must agree on it. For an advertising campaign to take off, and ads to see the light of day, someone has to write it, approve it, shoot the photos and record the videos. It's strange that no one during this whole process, from designing the ad to the market placement, realized that not only was this content deeply offensive, it was also against the law.

We live in a deeply patriarchal society and are far from seeing equal treatment of men and women in media and marketing campaigns. However, we also live in a capitalist society. So, even if everyone is still not on board with gender equality, there’s plenty of people who are -- and they are increasingly vocal about not wanting to spend money on businesses and products which denigrate women.

National ad campaigns cost at least 1 million kunas (around 150,000 EUR). For jumbo billboards, television and radio advertisements, leased advertising spaces in print media -- the prices go up to 50 million kunas (6,750,000 EUR). If manufacturers won’t think about social responsibility, one hopes that they will think about their own pocket and the money they are throwing away. Even if they have to learn these lessons one sexist ad at a time. 

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