Lighten up, ladies. That’s been the default reaction to any claim of misogyny since the suffragettes first chained themselves to the railings of Downing Street, and MPs wandered out and told them to stop taking themselves so seriously (or words to that effect).
The great thing I’ve noticed about getting older is that you stop caring about being perceived as humourless. So let me just say it: if the Irish PR industry’s enduring love affair with photoshoots featuring models in bikinis is a joke, then I don’t get it.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you haven't been reading many tabloid newspapers – but here's an example to get you in the picture. Last Friday, the Insomnia founder and Newstalk presenter Bobby Kerr tweeted a photo of himself and fellow former Dragon's Den participant Niall O'Farrell surrounded by 14 models in black bikinis, accompanied by the caption: "Great way to spend a Friday afternoon."
When some of his followers on Twitter questioned Kerr’s judgment, he explained that he wasn’t promoting anything, and that he had just been invited to step into the photoshoot “for a bit of fun”. Then he suggested that his detractors should “lighten up, girls.”
To be fair, neither Kerr nor O'Farrell is responsible for dreaming up the concept of what's often referred to as the "lovely girls photoshoot", and since neither could be contacted by The Irish Times despite efforts, we'll accept Kerr's word that they simply happened on the scene and were invited to step in.
But still: they could have just said “no thanks, I’d sooner not”.
I don’t have an issue with models wearing bikinis to promote bikinis. But I do have an issue with models in bikinis being used to draw our attention to the fact that that the Lotto jackpot is going to be €5 million, or that it will soon be St Patrick’s Day, or that some pub in Dublin is reopening after a fire. None of these things, as far as I can tell, has anything to do with swimwear, and yet they’re all real examples.
I’m willing to concede that using women’s bodies to sell stuff may, in 2013, be part of some brilliant, postmodern gag that I’m just too humourless to see. But I suspect it’s something else. I suspect it’s that photo editors, PR agencies, and the clients they work for, think men are too dim to concentrate on important messages about Lotto jackpots and pub openings unless they’re accompanied by generous doses of breasts and bottoms.
Persuading models into bikinis to promote crisps or a treatment for gingivitis isn’t just predictable or demeaning to women, it’s also insulting to men. It turns us into sex objects, and them into one-dimensional, lecherous dimwits. It betrays both an undertow of disdain, and a distinct lack of imagination.
Whenever I see a faintly blue-skinned model in a bikini shivering on Stephen’s Green, I picture the PR agency hoisting a huge, neon sign over their product which says: “We can’t think of any decent reason why you’d want to spend your money on this, but have a look at it anyway.”
If a campaign currently under way in Britain takes off here, the Irish PR industry may one day have to finally start looking for more creative ways to draw attention to its clients’ messages.
The Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign, which is being spearheaded by the organisations UK Feminista and Object, is warning high-street retailers that they could face legal action if they continue to stock magazines that display naked and near-naked images of women on their covers.
In a letter published in the Guardian earlier this week, 11 equal-rights lawyers point out that there have been previous cases of staff suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work. The letter says customers may have a case, too.
I’m not convinced that lawsuits aimed at newsagents are the way to go on this issue – but anything that draws the public’s attention to the relentless way women are reduced to the sum of their body parts has to be welcomed.
Such use of women has become so routine and pervasive in our culture that we rarely notice it any more. Lads mags – with their "Topless Hollyoaks stars" and their "Megaboobs Special: For times when a double D just isn't enough" (again, all drawn from issues currently on sale) – are simply the crudest and most obvious manifestation of it.
Women's magazines are it it, too, with their "circle of shame" features pointing out the inch of spare flesh above some Hollywood star's waistband, and their analyses of whether this celebrity has lost too much weight, or that one is pregnant.
An Irish problem
Some sections of the Irish media are equally culpable. The magazine section of one Sunday newspaper regularly employs semi-naked females to draw readers' attention to everything from stories on teen pregnancy, to interviews with high-profile Irish women, almost none of whom seem to be promoting their own swimwear range.
I’ve written about this issue before, and whenever I do, someone helpfully pipes up to suggest that I may be missing the point. “Sex sells,” they say. But even that’s not necessarily true – a recent study at Iowa university found that sexually provocative images might attract your audience’s attention, but it will probably just distract them from whatever you’re trying to sell.
Worryingly for the Irish PR agencies still loyal to the lovely girls photoshoot, another study at the University of Wisconsin shows that audiences view ads 10 per cent less favourably if they use sex to sell products that have nothing to do with, well, sex. In his book, even the famous adman David Ogilvy wrote that sex sells only when it is relevant to the product being sold.
So here’s a useful and not-too-complex rule for editors, advertisers and PR agencies: if it doesn’t have anything to do with swimwear, don’t use a bikini to promote it.