Mossimo window display snapped by a Collective Shout activist.

Mossimo window display snapped by a Collective Shout activist.

Scherri-Lee Biggs looks like she’s happily participating in some good old-fashioned female objectification. There she is, Australia’s Miss Universe, perched coyly on a chair with her fingers laced around her lurid red hooker heels. Her breasts are buoyant and her gaze is averted. Scherri is wearing more spray-tan than clothing.

But there’s something different about this image. What makes it stand out from the crushing banality of garden-variety sexist advertising is the fact that we’re looking at Scherri through a peep-hole. Scherri is a stripper more than a model, which turns you, dear reader, into a peeping voyeur.

But don’t worry! Scherri wants you to leer. She is fronting clothing brand Mossimo’s new advertising campaign called ‘Peep Show’ where people (in effect teenagers) are asked to learn from her example and create their own peep show.

Bravo Nicole. Bravo.

Bravo Nicole. Bravo.

Mossimo are asking people to submit candid photos to win prizes which they then doctor to look like they’ve been taken through a peep-hole. So it’s not only fine to leer at Scherri. You can leer at all nubile women. And if you happen to have cartoonesque cleavage or tanned and taut skin then why not offer yourself up for some gawking too?

Unsurprisingly, the Mossimo campaign has been a public relations disaster. Firstly, they didn’t anticipate the formidable challenge posed by two teenage entrants: Naughty Nicole and Kinky Katherine. Nicole gazes steadily into the camera with a sign that reads: ‘Mossimo Advertisement = sexist rubbish’. Katherine wears a t-shirt saying ‘Please prove your masculinity some other way.’ So far Nicole is winning the public vote with a landslide victory of 215 hits.

Nicole and Katherine were not the only ones unimpressed by Mossimo. The Advertising Standards Bureau is conducting an investigation on the basis of several complaints lodged last week. Melinda Tankard Reist has also been characteristically indignant.

Reist and her lobby group Collective Shout have argued that the advertisement normalizes people looking at women without their knowledge. Given that there are up to ten incidents of peeping and prying reported to police each week, with the victims invariably female, Reist’s complaints seem valid.

Mossimo’s marketing manager Leanne Wall has countered the accusations by asserting that the campaign was ‘just fun and light-hearted’. The word ‘peep show’ doesn’t necessarily refer to the sex industry, she said. Etymologically Wall may be right. Peep-show can refer to a wooden box containing a series of pictures seen on the streets of nineteenth century London. But something about casting a scantily clad Barbie against velvet drapes makes me question whether Mossimo were really trying to reference Charles Dickens.

Much as I hate to be a feminist killjoy, it seems that Mossimo are contributing to a culture where women are encouraged to see themselves and to be seen as unconditionally sexually available. You can gaze upon women in their most intimate moments and they always seem to be boundlessly happy about it.  Further, structuring the images like a peep show, with the woman’s eyes averted, creates a fantasy of non-consenting sexuality.

It is meant to look like we are gazing upon the women unawares. Yes, the competition is open to men too. But the use of Miss Universe and the overwhelmingly feminine response shows that this is really about women. The women not only appear as objects used to sell clothing, the entire setting – a peep show – is about the sale of women’s sexuality for male pleasure.

Mossimo’s advertisement is also an excellent example of how commodity culture can work with visual technologies to constrain women’s autonomy. Sex sells. And Mossimo certainly aren’t the first company to encourage women to see themselves as objects.

The birth of advertising post-World War One saw a proliferation of images of women being watched unawares or simply monitoring themselves. Selling women beauty products and fashion involved depicting them gazing in mirrors, being filmed by movie cameras or being watched and judged by their peers. An all-seeing male connoisseur came to reside in the heads of women. They were placed under his gaze and under his judgment.

These days, social media like Facebook has transformed this process from something that we imbibe through media, to something that we do willingly ourselves. Robotic sexualized poses are offered to a coterie of acquaintances. We make ourselves into self-transforming commodities in a marketplace of desire. Mossimo simply tapped into this.

Happily though not all women are buying it, or selling it for that matter. This is not a tale of an older feminist wringing her hands over the pornification of teenage girls, but an example of teenage girls confronting and challenging that culture. The same public outcry was witnessed over PETA’s recent commercial which normalised sexual violence against women, and over Proctor and Gamble’s advice website for teenage girls that doubled as an advertising space for hair-removal creams.

The question remains then as to why advertising companies keep getting it so wrong, particularly when they are constantly called to account by Advertising Bodies and consumers. We could hazard a guess that selling people products they don’t actually need requires playing on their desires, and actively shaping them. So women become strippers and men become peeping Toms, as advertisers work with suffocatingly narrow models of female and male identity.

But sexuality is so much more playful, joyful and daring than this. Ultimately, women’s pleasures and desires are infinite, smouldering, powerful forces that advertisers ignore at their own peril. Just take a look at Naughty Nicole.