When sex doesn't sell

Provocative ad campaigns have led a number of young women to boycott certain clothing stores. But will the trend catch on?

he back cover of Fox's summer 2006 catalogue is a photo of a shirtless male model with his head between two very round and very bare female buttocks. He appears extremely pleased with his surroundings. Shot in Brazil, the inside of the catalogue isn't much different - scantily clad women pose seductively with their male counterparts, one of whom even lowers his speedo, exposing his rear end for the camera. The clothing catalogue also contains advice: pick-up lines guys shouldn't use ("This blouse looks very nice on you. It's interesting to know how it would look taken off and tossed on the floor of my bedroom"), things a girl shouldn't say when being attacked in Brazil ("Is that a gun or are you just happy to see me?") and how to make a voodoo doll to torture your two-timing boyfriend. Some label the catalogue racist for its "discriminatory" placement of the darker, native Brazilians in submissive poses next to the white models; others call it pornographic and degrading to women. One thing's for sure - not all women are taking it lying down. "These advertisements are dirty, sexual and disgusting," says Chen Jacobson, a 17-year-old who boycotts the Fox chain of clothing stores. "This type of advertising turns women into a sex symbol, into an object, and there's a lot more to a woman than a pornographic picture." But Fox isn't the only culprit. Jacobson also boycotts the TNT and Castro chains, adding that Castro's "Designed for Desire" slogan says it all: "It's all about sexuality - they use it to get people to buy clothes." As for TNT, one of their ads features a pre-pubescent looking model, hair in pigtails, wearing a mini-skirt and riding on a plastic toy horse - an image one woman called "obscenely provocative." "I saw [TNT's] ads about three years ago and thought they were rude, vulgar and offensive to women," says Talia Amichai, a friend of Jacobson's who only boycotts TNT because, as she puts it, "if I boycott all the shops I won't have anywhere to buy clothes." Although not all clothes sold at TNT are skimpy and immodest, Amichai says she won't buy anything there on principle - just like she won't buy fur. "The first time I saw [TNT's] catalogue I thought it was disgusting," Amichai explains. "The way women were dressed - or not dressed - the way women were standing. It just seemed like there were no clothes anywhere. The whole concept seemed wrong." Though both Jacobson and Amichai come from religious homes, the girls claim their boycott has nothing to do with religion. "It's not connected to Halacha at all." Jacobson contends, "It's just disrespectful to women. It should bother everyone, religious or not." Amichai adds that she has secular friends who boycott these stores as well, simply because they deem the ads degrading to the female race. For young girls - who are, in fact, the target audience - the sexuality of these advertisements as well as the type of people in them have the potential to create a very negative body image among a population already fraught with the insecurities of puberty. "When you see a skinny girl with a huge chest you want to look like her," says Jacobson, "and it affects your self-confidence and leads to problems like anorexia." Dafna Lemish, the chair of the Communications Department at Tel Aviv University, teaches a class on gender portrayal in the media and its effect on women. "Images in the media create a model, something to aspire to, standards to which women compare themselves, and overemphasize the importance of how a woman looks," Lemish explains. "Women, especially young girls, internalize this and see themselves through society's eyes - as too fat or not blonde enough." According to Lemish, advertising is dangerous because it markets more than just a product - it sells images and values as well. And because it's a cumulative process, no particular catalogue or company is specifically to blame, she adds. Despite the girls' harsh stance against the stores, Lemish admits this type of boycotting is not a growing trend in Israel. "Unfortunately, here in Israel we have very little consumer consciousness. We don't realize our power as a consumer, our rights as a consumer, and therefore we don't see a lot of boycotting of provocative products," she says, adding that the lack of a strong feminist culture in Israel also contributes to the problem. "Gender issues are put aside because we always say we have more important things to worry about - like security and Hamas," Lemish continues. Representatives from TNT refused to comment for this article, but an official at Fox apologized on behalf of the company if the catalogue offended anyone and stressed that was not their intention. The catalogues - delivered door-to-door - were not distributed in religious neighborhoods so as not to offend, explained the official. She added that the boycott will not affect their clothing sales. Though Lemish claims the act of boycotting a store is strong enough to have an effect, she doubts the trend will catch on because there are plenty of women who don't mind the advertisements, and many of those who do feel powerless to change the situation. "The long-term solution is gender equality in Israel," she says. Lemish is encouraged by the young age of the boycotters because "usually only older women have the sensitivity and awareness to such issues." But for Amichai and Jacobson, this boycott is only the beginning. "I did a project for school about the way advertising causes problems for adolescent girls and the ways it's offensive to women," Amichai says. "It makes me very angry. If you want to sell clothes, why do you have to bring out this type of provocative catalogue? This idea that sex sells - it's a never-ending problem."