And the award goes to… porn culture!

Cannes Bayers ad

Every year, Cannes Lions celebrates the world’s greatest capitalists… Ahem, I mean ads. So while perhaps our hopes they might avoid actively promoting porn culture are misplaced, a wish might be that it not be celebrated as some kind of great creative achievement.

Earlier this week, an invitation to one of the Cannes Lions parties was leaked, reading, “Thank you for your interest in attending!! Please be aware that this specific list is for attractive females and models only.” The email asked that “ladies” submit “unretouched photos and or your Instagram/Facebook links for you and each of your additional female guest” for review before event details would be released to the hopeful “lady” in question.

Now this:

The ad that won bronze in the category of “indoor posters — cosmetics, toiletries, healthcare & pharmacy” was produced by AlmapBBDO agency in São Paulo, Brazil for one of Bayer’s aspirin brands, Aspirina. The message, simple: it’s cute and funny when men turn their girlfriends into porn! LOL RIGHT?

The text for the ad reads, “‘Don’t worry babe, I’m not filming this.’mov.” We can reasonably assume, considering AlmapBBDO’s past emplyment of the “women are a headache” theme, that the message is that the girlfriend in question discovers she’s been pornified and that the poor cute and funny dude in question has to take an Aspirin after she screams at him.

While media and Twitter have rightfully called out the ad and subsequent celebration of the ad as sexist and as promoting rape culture, what has not been named is, duh, porn culture.

This is nothing but a big ol’ wink from bro to bro saying, “Sex is porn. And if it isn’t, we will make it so.” I mean, what is the purpose of secretly filming a woman you are having sex with, anyway? Either it is so that you can objectify her later, turning a moment shared between two people into a creep fest for one (if the male gaze isn’t centered at all times he starts to feel left out), or in order to exact revenge later when she dumps your pervert ass. It is also about dominance, in that it signals to women that they are never truly in control — when men choose to film women engaged in sexual (or sexualized) acts, they ensure that experience no longer belongs to them, but to the man — it is for him (and, potentially, countless other men).

The complaints about “rape culture” are well-intended, but denote an ongoing fear of naming the problem. To be fair, the sex in question is implied to be consensual — it’s the filming of sex that was not.

The desire to maintain porn culture and the capitalist system that supports an advertising industry makes calling out this kind of sexism difficult. While we can (and should) name individual sexist ads as such, if we aren’t willing to address why these ads exist and what they mean, it’s unlikely we’ll get very far in terms of combating the actual problem.

Gallop herself believes radical change can happen through the capitalist project and within a context of corporations. She doesn’t want to work against the porn industry, but alongside it, as an alternative. When she had trouble finding money to fund her MakeLoveNotPorn project, she said she simply wanted to “do business on the same terms and conditions as everybody else.”

“I’m fighting this battle very publicly, because the answer to everything that worries people about porn is not to shut down, censor, clamp down, block and repress, but to open up and welcome and support people like me and my team, who want to disrupt the world of sex and porn for the better.”

But unless we do fight the multi-billion dollar porn industry, small “alternative” projects are unlikely to make a dent in the massive pockets of porn producers, which means porn culture will continue to expand, rather than shrink.

While certainly rape culture and porn culture go hand in hand, and certainly things like revenge porn qualify as a form of sexual assault, in that women are violated by it, what the invisible man whose voice is featured in the Aspirina ad is doing is making sex into porn. “Voyeur” is a role men have learned to enjoy as the dominant sex, positioned in opposition to the object that is “to-be-looked-at” (women). This is the basis for the objectification that happens in ads, on the street, and in pornography: that women primarily exist for men’s pleasure and titillation. If women are not serving this purpose, they are useless, invisible — a headache.

This message is made clear by the invitation to the “Wednesday Party” and by the AlmapBBDO/Bayer’s ad, but also through advertising and the porn industry as a whole. These projects are not disconnected, and while shouting angrily on Twitter is purposeful in terms of amplifying a message and drumming up well-deserved shame towards sexist companies, mislabeling the actual problem in an effort to avoid shaking up the system too much will ensure the system simply buries it’s aims a little better while maintaining it’s bottom line.

Update/June 24, 2016: Bayer has tried to distance themselves from the AlmapBBDO ad, despite admitting they approved the ad. A statement to AdWeek reads: “AlmapBBDO deeply apologizes for any offense caused and takes full responsibility for the creation of the work.” The agency have since withdrawn all of their Brazilian Bayer ads from .

VaynerMedia founder and CEO Gary Vaynerchuk responds to Cindy Gallop on Twitter, saying he is “mortified” by the email that went out, stating only “attractive women and models” may attend The Wednesday Party, which his company sponsored. While Vaynerchuk says the agency was not directly involved in hiring the events company that sent the email and that the message was not reflective of the company or its culture. He added though, that as the CEO of the agency, he took responsibility for it. Ben Lerer, founder and CEO of Thrillist, the other sponsor of The Wednesday Party, says, “No one at Thrillist (or Vayner for that matter) knew anything about what this vendor was doing and we are clearly appalled by it.”

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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