Latvian ads: keeping women in the kitchen while men go to space

Psychologists have long debated whether our DNA or environment defines who we are as a person, and on February 24 the Forbidden Method (Aizliegtais paņēmiens) investigative journalism program dove into an analysis of Latvian television advertisements in an attempt to further untangle the 'chicken or the egg' question of whether the gender roles presented in ads are intrinsically a reflection of, or whether they themselves influence society.

The power of advertising

“The effect of advertising as a mass social phenomenon carries in itself a huge cultural potential that, under the right circumstances, can significantly influence both individuals and society as a whole,” said Russian advertising psychologist Aleksandr Lebedev-Lubimov.

He also observed that while advertising is sometimes considered to be a reflection of society, it's most often an incorrect reflection. This power to mislead is theoretically regulated by the Advertising Law. Section 4 of the law says that ads aren't allowed:

“to express discrimination against a person due to his or her race, skin colour, gender, age, religious, political or other convictions, national or social origin, financial status or other circumstances”

Europe began discussing the stereotypes propagated by advertising more than ten years ago, including gender roles. In 2018 a European Parliament report was critical of the situation, stating that nothing had changed and that the problem persists. The issues is that the stereotypes negatively influence both personal and professional development, while portraying women as subjugated to men can promote violence against women and discrimination. 

Forbidden Method evaluated ten television ads shown over the past year in Latvia and found that they clearly show which gender should have which roles in society. Men are macho bosses who don't work at home, but women are housewives and beautiful dolls who aren't too bright. This portrayal could lead to discrimination in the workforce - after all women are still paid less than men on average.

Survey on the street says

According to a Latvian Facts survey, more than 70% of Latvian society thinks that cleaning the house is a woman's job. Forbidden Method also interviewed some people on the street:

Who should clean the house?

  • Eduards, foreign education consultant: “Actually also both supposedly, yes, but it differs depending on a person's character. For example, I'm pretty lazy. My girlfriend is pretty active. How it works for each person, but of course actually it should be that both do it together.”
  • Aleksander ad Isvana from Norway: “Where we're from women and men are equal.” “Yes, we split it 50/50.”
  • Aleksandrs and Nika, students: “Both.” “I wanted to hear this. Yes, but also both.”

Who should earn money in a family?

  • Young mother: “The man. That's traditionally accepted.”
  • Vadims: “I don't know. People have to decide themselves what's best for everyone. Still girls were fighting for equal rights ad wanted to be careerists. So please.”
  • Alvis, student: “I live only with my mom. So only my mom earns money. And the other person, if you could call it that, is me. I'm studying in college and I have a stipend. Well in my own way that's how I make money.”
  • Raivo, student. “In my opinion the father, because, you know - the mom has to watch the child. And the father is responsible for the whole family, and in my opinion that's how it should be.”

“On one hand advertisements only exploit those stereotypes that already exist in society, because otherwise the ad wouldn't be understood. On the other hand, when they're used increasingly often, it creates the belief that it's also reality. Each new situation limits the capability for a person to see that things could also be a little bit different,” said Doctor of Psychology and University of Latvia Lecturer Mārtiņš Veide.

International ad regulation

In the UK the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) keeps an eye on regulations concerning gender stereotypes. The organization is funded by percentages from paid advertising and has an agreement with media regulator Ofcom. Anyone can hand in a complaint to ASA, and the organization has banned three video advertisements:

  • Father forgets children while eating sandwich (for promoting the idea that fathers can't look after children)
  • Golf car ad where one woman sleeps in a tent, another sits on a park bench with a stroller, but men are running and go to space (for creating false stereotypes about men and women)
  • PC Specialist computer ad (for creating the false idea that only men appreciate computers)

“One ad won't cause direct harm, but we're talking about a broader context and the consequences that harmful gender stereotypes can have on society,” said ASA Senior Investigations Executive Catherine Drewett.

Sweden, however doesn't have any special laws or regulations regarding gender stereotypes in advertising, but it does have an organization that accepts and evaluates complaints. Decisions are made by society and published publicly. “Losing customer credibility is very expensive. It’s very expensive to regain consumer credibility. That’s why self-regulation is effective,” said Swedish Advertising Ombudsman (Reklamombudsmannen) Advertising Ombudsman Elisabeth Trotzig.

It’s interesting to note that Kantar global research agency found that neither men nor women like these stereotypes. They found that 76% of women and 71% of men aren't  satisfied with how their gender is portrayed.

Latvian situation

However in Latvia there are no surveys or research regarding how society views ads, nor are there any regulations for identifying stereotyping. And there aren't  really many complaints. Theoretically Latvians can complain to the Consumer Rights Protection Centre (PTAC), but they haven't  found any violations. Advertising professionals can complain to the Latvian Advertising Association (LRA) Ethics Council, but their ethics code doesn’t mention gender stereotypes.

“This code was created in 2009. A few things should be changed. So that it would be more modern and fitting. We simply have to rewrite it every once in a while,” said LRA Board Chair Baiba Liepiņa.

It shouldn't be all about sex

Forbidden Method found a few instances where both men and women are being objectified to sell a product through their ad monitoring:

  • Autocapital ad where two guys are checking out a girl in a short skirt and top: “Hey dude, would you want one like that for yourself?” (Girl moves to reveal car) “We have many more like this”
  • Circle K burger ad where all customers are distracted by a muscly man drinking a smoothie - family can't keep their eyes off him

Despite the lack of mention of gender discrimination in the LRA ethics code, there have been three complaints in Latvia over the past ten years regarding targeted sexualization:

  • Cēsu beer bottle caps with women’s behinds, stomach, breasts - after it was pointed out the company changed the design
  • XL energy drink ad poster featuring a corseted woman in an erotic pose - “The leader in nightlife” - after LRA deciding the side of a bus is not the place for the ad, the ad creators said the code doesn’t apply to them
  • Tele2 mobile operator ad - “Three times more of a good thing” poster with three women around one man - the LRA Ethics Council decided that this is fine

University  of Latvia researcher Marita Zitmane handed in two out of these three complaints. She understands that companies are trying to attract attention, but she feels like it’s false advertising. “They’re selling an image that is more beautiful, brighter than the original, which the original will never be able to achieve,” said Zitmane.

The other risk is that such ads can promote violence against women by promoting negative views of women and objectification. Women’s resource Marta Center Development Programme Director Lelde Vaivode highlighted the risk of propagating such images.

“As soon as you don't look at a person as a person, but as an object, it’s much easier to let yourself do harm, because you’re not doing harm to a person. It’s some kind of imagined image,” said Vaivode.

Violations go unpunished in Latvia

Although the Marta Center has gathered several examples of sexual objectification over the year, none of them quite break the law. “The simple problem here is that the LRA and council doesn't have the options to punish. They may have recommendations on what they suggest or don't suggest, and it’s non-binding,” said gender researcher Zitmane. Latvia will eventually have to deal with these issues, it’s a European trend being pushed by both ad viewers and subjects.

“After 15 year in this profession I can feel that in the Latvian market the models ourselves, who have been in the industry for a while, are beginning to observe those boundaries, starting to say: this isn't ok,” said model Māra Sleja.

“When [giving lectures] I ask if anyone in this room has ever felt bad about their body. Almost everyone raises their hands. I’ve also given boys lectures. They all raise their hands that they’ve sometimes felt bad. And those are youth from 12-18 years old. They I say I apologise that they’ve felt that way, because for the most part I’m also partially responsible, because I'm the visual material,” continued Sleja, “And I truly apologise from the bottom of my heart that I've influenced their self-worth and also my own self-worth in a way.”

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