The emergence of material referring to girls as young as 10 appearing “more adult and sexy” in a brief for a David Jones advertisement is troubling.

When the Australia Institute accused David Jones of sexualizing children in its 2006 Summer children’s wear campaign, the company responded with outraged denials.

Yet it was obvious to the authors of the Australia Institute report that the girls in the Alison Ashley ad at the centre of the controversy were posed in a sexually provocative way.

It was also obvious to David Jones’ customers, many of whom wrote to the company complaining.

It was obvious to the reporters and news editors who picked out the Alison Ashley advertisement to illustrate their stories at the time.

And it was obvious to the parents who flooded our office with messages.

Thank goodness someone has exposed this”, they wrote.

“Congratulations.”

“I am a mother of two girls and I worry at how they are being sexualized.”

“We too found the Alison Ashley ad disturbing.”

The meaning of those girls’ poses was evident to all of these people, yet now we are asked to believe that the marketing professionals at David Jones and Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising firm responsible for David Jones’ children’s wear campaign, could not see it. The photo passed through all stages of scrutiny and final selection at David Jones and Saatchi, and no one noticed there was something wrong.

Even when it was pointed out by the Australia Institute, David Jones did not fess up and apologise. Instead, it went on the warpath.

The CEO immediately rang to threaten me with legal action. The company went to the media all guns blazing declaring that the claims were “unfounded”, “repugnant” and “defamatory”. It said it had policies that would prevent anything like this.

Saatchi & Saatchi was adamant too: “We have never, ever er-ticised children in any way for any client in any communication. Not only is the idea repugnant to us, we take very seriously the fact that David Jones is a family brand.”

David Jones wrote back to their angry customers completely rejecting the allegations.

“We take great care to ensure that the children in our advertising are portrayed in keeping with the family values important to David Jones and our customers”, said the standardised email reply.

Then David Jones hired lawyers to come after us, claiming the Australia Institute and I had engaged in “deceptive or misleading conduct” under the Trade Practices Act. People at David Jones and Saatchi & Saatchi swore affidavits to support their case that our claims were deceptive or misleading.

They fought behind the scenes too. According to Julie Gale of Melbourne campaigning organisation Kids Free 2B Kids, Saatchi & Saatchi employed gun lawyers to try to prevent the NSW Children’s Guardian releasing material under the Freedom of Information Act. But she doggedly pursued her request until the Ombudsman ruled in her favour.

Now we know why they fought so hard to keep the information secret.

The material released by the Children’s Guardian suggests that David Jones’ outrage was confected. After all, the company had form for s-xualizing children; in 1999 it was severely chastised in the press for featuring a nine-year-old girl with a “come-hither” expression.

So where do these revelations leave the two companies?

How does Saatchi & Saatchi reconcile its vehement denials with its decision to present young girls in a s-xual context?

Like many others, I noticed that after the publication of the Australia Institute’s report David Jones’ advertising suddenly changed. The kids started to look like kids. No more sultry poses or coquettish looks; they could have been Amish.

The change was welcome, but to many of us it was an admission of guilt.

So will David Jones now own up to its deceptive and misleading conduct and apologise? Will it apologise to the authors of the Institute report, to its customers and, most important of all, to the children the company exploited?

And where do these revelations leave the NSW Children’s Guardian and the responsible Minister, Linda Burney? The Children’s Guardian is required to protect the “emotional, social, physical and developmental needs” of child models, yet it approved an advertising campaign in which 10 and 12-year old girls were to be presented as “more adult and s-xy”.

Lastly, where do these revelations leave the industry-funded Advertising Standards Bureau which dismissed s-xualisation of children as a “non-issue”?

Many questions remain to be answered.

Peter Fray

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