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Demand for Legislation Against Discriminating Advertising

Sweden is the only Nordic country without a law against sexist advertising. The other countries have legislation in place, but the issue is not receiving enough priority. Iceland is best-in-class when it comes to following up on violations, according to a new Nordic review presented today.

Stephanie Thögersen. Press photo
 Stephanie Thögersen. Press photo

The review, published in Swedish and titled “Sexism på köpet – lagstiftning, praxis och förslag till åtgärder mot könsdiskriminerande reklam i Norden”, is presented by the Swedish Women’s Lobby and its Norwegian and Danish partner organisations in the so-called Ad Watch project, which started in 2013. In the project, the involved organisations have gathered information about present laws and how they are applied. According to Stéphanie Thögersen, programme coordinator at the Swedish Women’s Lobby, the issue of sexist advertising is of utmost importance. The growing advertising space in society implies a growing space also for sexist advertising, increasing the risk of ‘normalisation’ of the practice.

‘Hopefully, our report will lead to concrete measures, to improved legislation in the Nordic countries. The review includes recommendations for each country.’

What does the situation look like in the Nordic countries?
‘Denmark stands out. The advertising reported to authorities in Denmark is so sexist it wouldn’t see the light of day in Sweden. Unfortunately, Danish advertisers get away with a lot. Their consumer ombudsman is relatively lenient. For example, we had a case where a company ran the same ad campaign in Malmö (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark). While the company was forced to remove the advertisements in Sweden, they were deemed acceptable in Denmark.’

What do the Nordic legislations against sexist advertising look like?
‘All Nordic countries have laws in place except Sweden. In Iceland, sexist advertising is regulated under the gender equality act. In the other countries it is considered a consumer legislation issue, which means that the respective consumer ombudsmen are in charge of monitoring compliance. However, we have found that these agencies are not giving much priority to the problem. The follow-up of violations works best in Iceland, where the responsibility lies with the Centre for Gender Equality – a government agency with a lot of competence in the area. The law imposes a fine on companies that do not voluntarily remove advertisements after being instructed to do so. So far, no company has been fined, but the law seems to have a deterring effect.’

If Sweden doesn’t have a law, what happens when somebody reports sexist advertising?
‘Sweden has the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, which is a self-regulatory organisation founded by the industry. That’s who you contact if you spot sexist advertising, but then not much happens. The Ombudsman does not impose a penalty, like a fine, or ask companies to remove their advertisements. In practice, this means that businesses caught engaging in sexist advertising can safely continue their practices.’

What can the Nordic countries learn from each other in this area?
‘We conclude that there is a need for not only laws against sexist advertising but also effective monitoring and public engagement. In Sweden there is a strong public interest in reporting sexist advertising, yet the country needs legislation in order for the submitted reports to lead to tangible consequences. Norway, Finland and Denmark have laws, but the problem in these countries is that few people are familiar with the legislation and report violations. This means there’s a need for information campaigns. What’s most important is that politicians and policymakers start giving higher priority to the issue so that everybody will understand that sexist advertising is not compatible with a gender-equal society.

Updated 3 July 2020