The uncovering of hard evidence regarding the sexualising of children in David Jones’ advertising makes monkeys out of the small band of media academics who leapt to the defence of the retailer.
Using Freedom of Information laws, campaign group Kids Free 2B Kids has obtained documents revealing that DJ’s advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi asked for girls aged 10 and 12 to be “more adult and sexy”. The girls appeared in an Alison Ashley advertisement at the centre of the storm created by the Australia Institute’s 2006 report accusing David Jones, among other companies, of eroticising children.
Catharine Lumby, then of the University of Sydney, was quick to declare the Institute’s accusations “irresponsible”. She insisted that there are very strict codes of conduct governing advertising and marketing to children. “Companies would simply not be allowed to get away with it,” she said.
In rejecting the Australia Institute’s claims, Lumby drew (as she often does) on her authority as a long-standing member of the Advertising Standards Bureau, an industry-funded body. The Bureau, which represents major advertisers, dismissed sexualisation of children in advertising as a “non-issue”.
In a submission to a Senate inquiry, Lumby and her long-time collaborator Kath Albury set out to examine “the evidence for the [Australia Institute] report’s claims using a combination of textual analysis of the media they document, a literature review of key research in relevant fields, and an analysis of the shape and scope of public debate on the subject”. They found the report had got it all wrong.
Despite the claim to have “substantial research track records” and to “have both published widely on these issues”, their careful “evidence-based” conclusion crumbles in a heap when put against the two little sentences from Saatchi & Saatchi.
“Allison Ashley’s spread is set around a tropical garden and pool. The age is from 10 to 12 years so slightly more adult and s-xy.”
When Channel Nine’s Sunday program put the Alison Ashley ad under her nose Lumby had no hesitation: “there’s no s-xual behaviour going on in the image”. Oh dear. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Another of Lumby’s co-authors, Queensland academic Alan McKee, was convinced that the Institute was caught up in a “moral panic”. Commenting specifically on the Corporate Paedophilia report he declared: “My finding is that I do not believe that a ‘reasonable adult’ would see any s-xualisation in these examples.” Who is McKee’s “reasonable adult”?
Not only did he find no evidence of sexualisation in the David Jones’ advertisements, he was certain, drawing on all of his expertise, there is no sexualisation of children anywhere in the mainstream media. “Despite public concerns”, he told the Senate inquiry, “there are currently no representations in the mainstream media environment that a reasonable adult would perceive as ‘s-xualisation of children’.”
Such a thing would be impossible, he told the Senators, stressing over and over the “robust network of legislation around Australia which prevents the representation of children in a sexualised way”. In fact, there are no laws against the sexualisation of children in advertising but, if there were, on McKee’s logic there could be no misleading advertising of any sort because there are laws against it.
Nevertheless, the Senate inquiry was mightily impressed with the evidence of these esteemed academics and its report was a whitewash. It was left to the last member of the clique, Lumby’s co-author and partner Duncan Fine, to stick the knife in.
“If kids want to get dressed up as Kylie — or Paris Hilton for that matter — then let them, because if you find an eight-year-old girl in a bikini a sex object then it’s you who has the problem — not her, not her parents and not the store that sold it to them.”
Well, most ordinary Australians must be perverts — hundreds of them rang talkback radio or wrote to the newspapers, the Australia Institute and David Jones complaining about children being presented as sex objects.
Warming to his theme Fine went on to back the now-disgraced retailer: “Good on David Jones for standing up for themselves. I looked at the pictures and I thought, if you were to look at that and see something even vaguely pornographic, there’s got to be something wrong with you.”
According to Fine — who is a writer for kids TV show Hi-5 — if you think sex when you look at the Alison Ashley ad then you have a problem. Yet we now know that is exactly what those who created the ad were thinking.
Suspicions about Fine’s lack of intellectual subtlety were reinforced when he accused the Australia Institute “and its cheer squad from the Fun Police” of wanting to control how people think and behave. “And wasn’t the last group who tried to impose that kind of dress code a fun loving bunch called the Taliban?”
Why deny the obvious?
The Lumby clique have been horribly duped. Unprompted, they rushed to defend the reputation of David Jones against the outrageous slurs of the Australia Institute — “irresponsible”, “jumping at phantoms”, “ludicrous”, they said. Yet we now have proof of what most people knew all along. Of course the children were being presented in sexually provocative poses. You don’t have to be Humbert Humbert to see that. You only have to be a parent.
The mystery in all this is why this faction of media academics go out of their way to deny that which is so obvious to every impartial observer, that children are routinely sexualized in the media and advertising. I don’t know the answer, because I can divine no coherent position behind it.
With backgrounds in cultural studies, they are enamoured with popular culture and the media, often siding with advertisers and media companies to defend them from criticisms. Lumby and Fine penned a book titled Why TV is Good for Kids and Fine is quoted as saying “children as young as seven and eight, they actually understand what marketing is. They know, they’re very savvy…”.
Lumby and Albury also defend children against over-protective adults: “…children do not necessarily trust what they find in the media: they are ‘literate’, and often highly critical consumers.” Fine argues that Paris Hilton is a good role model for teenage girls, who can separate her admirable qualities from her learning mistakes.
They represent themselves as “s-x-positive” in opposition to all those, including feminists and moral conservatives, whom they see as anti-s-x. Lumby, Albury and McKee wrote The Porn Book, summarised by McKee who said that “pornography is actually good for you in many ways”, although he reportedly refused to be drawn on whether it is good for children.
Somehow out of this mix comes an urge to defend big corporations accused of exploiting children. The irony is that these post-moderns have their roots firmly in radical critiques of oppressive structures, yet they have morphed into some of the most fervent intellectual champions of the powerful. In this role they perform a most useful function for the advertisers and corporate miscreants, because no one believes them when they have to defend themselves.
The question now is whether anyone will ever again believe Lumby, McKee, Albury and Fine now that their authoritative declarations have been so rudely shattered by the little bit of real evidence that has now come to light.