Selling ads on women's thighs

If there’s a turn of phrase in Japanese that is equivalent to “my face is up here, buddy”, it may be time to retire it: a Tokyo PR agency is hiring young women - or rather, their thighs - to become walking advertisements.

“Participants, who must be over 18, are recommended to wear miniskirts and long socks to draw attention to the campaigns. More than 3,000 women registered to give up their skin to become 'billboards'.”

The Tokyo campaign - if you look at it from the advertisers’ perspective rather than that of the women involved - is just another chapter in a long and grim history of advertising’s using women’s bodies as props.

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That’s a problem almost as old as advertising itself. A “memorable” recent example includes this mindboggling Fiat ad that features a bunch of naked bodies painted and arranged to look like a Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio (as they say on the internet “sure, why not”), but women have been reduced to limbs, bums, bosoms and backs to flog product since the good old bad old days that have fuelled six seasons’ worth of Mad Men storylines.

As the Japanese PR agent himself says in the Guardian video, “It’s an absolutely perfect place to put an advertisement, as it [women’s thighs] is what guys are eager to look at.” Framing the ad on the thighs by directing the (male) consumer’s eye to that region by instructing women to wear thigh socks and miniskirts effectively becomes a real life instance of a print ad that presents a woman as a collection of sexy body parts devoid of subjectivity.

Ms. Magazine offered a good primer in the sexual objectification of women’s bodies in advertising last year, offering a how-to-spot-it guide that included criteria such as “Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?” and “Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?”  

The energy expended on debating whether or not these (freely consenting, well remunerated) Tokyo women are being hurt by this ad campaign - which is a generous term anyway, since this surely falls more squarely under the banner of a “PR stunt” - would be better spent voting with our wallets and avoiding companies whose modus operandi is and always has been the systematic objectification of women.

If that doesn’t sound compelling enough, consider that when “skinvertising” campaigns have involved men, they typically have the ads applied to their foreheads or arms; prime real estate for women in the same position tends to be “sexy” parts of the body, like the decolletage, bum, or, in this case, thighs.

(And surely men resent the notion that - if we believe this model of advertising theory - they’re geared to ogle women and all it takes to get their attention is a gaudy sticker on an exposed bit of skin.)

In terms of the women participating, however, my initial instinct is to recall the sage philosopher Missy Elliott’s Work It: “Girl, girl, get that cash/If it’s nine-to-five or shakin’ your ass/Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang/Just make sure you’re ahead of the game”.

The issue here is not that these young women feel no compunction in selling ad-space on their bodies. Too often these discussions devolve into bleating about “How could they do that to themselves!!” as though the young women with stickers on their thighs are the bad guys here. Besides, that question has an easy answer: they do it “to themselves” because they either want or need the money, or both, none of which is inherently bad.

(Hell, I live in the land of permanent shorts/skirts: if a company whose products I liked wanted to pay me a few hunge a week to whack a temporary tattoo on my thigh before I wander around The Grove, I would immediately present my leg.)

It’s also not that different from the age-old world of promotional modelling. Just this weekend I went to San Diego Comic-Con International, where every third or fourth girl in a cool outfit turned out to be flogging one product or another. Likewise, anyone who has ever attended a car show or other trade event will be familiar with the pretty ladies in logo-covered and abbreviated ensembles, handing out “swag”.

The real issue is, instead, that the advertising world continues to create these sorts of opportunities/”scandals” in their ever increasing drive to turn women’s bodies - and body parts - into little more than cogs in the great capitalism machine.