Provocative and Perilous

by pancake on April 25, 2017 - 5:28pm

     Parisian fashion house Yves Saint Laurent boasts an iconic name in both the fashion and beauty industries, known for its luxury products and exclusivity. However, to stay a frontrunner and primary influencer in the constantly changing fashion industry, Saint Laurent must execute its advertising with an unparalleled artistry that provokes thought and offers consumers an incentive to purchase their products. As a result their advertisements are often provocative, a quality that Saint Laurent took too far in their Spring 2017 campaign by designer Anthony Vacarello. The campaign includes images that depict very thin women wearing very little clothing, positioned in a highly sexually manner that draws attention to their bodies rather than to their faces. These images are being criticized as “incitement to rape” (Robinson), and for ticking “all the sexist boxes” (Robinson), and thus their publication is ethically questionable. A teleological approach would condemn these advertisements for their harmful depiction of women as sexual objects, as they are not only degrading but can instill damaging values on their audience. However, a deontologist would argue that these publications are valid advertisements when considering the right to freedom of speech and expression, and might say that people, as rational beings, can choose whether or not to accept the messages delivered by Saint Laurent’s campaign images. In determining whether or not this campaign is ethical, a teleological approach best recognizes the widespread dangers associated with objectifying women in advertising.

     Saint Laurent’s primary marketing strategy is to create a brand identity that consumers seek to emulate in their personal lives, also known as identity ads. By creating a brand that “celebrates the beauty of the body, of charm, of surrender to romance, and is flavoured with a hint of ostentatious indecency” (Kapferer, 196), Saint Laurent has become the epitome of style for women and men around the world, encouraging confidence, empowerment, and affluent lifestyles. However, their newest campaign, which contains derogatory imagery towards women, seems to stray from the brand’s fundamental ideals. The very nature of identity ads is questionable, as they have the power to “promote false values” (Bishop, 371). For example the Saint Laurent campaign promotes the correlation between a person’s physical appearance and outward sexuality with their value as a human being, which is further exacerbated by the constant presence of the media in our society. Exposure to media undeniably helps construct the identities of those exposed to ideals in advertisement, which can produce further repercussions. It is important to examine the consequences of these ads, as the “loss of self esteem can arise if image ads convince a person they are being judged by impossible standards” (Bishop 377), where it can also be noted that “women with low self-esteem invest great importance on their body-image as a source of self-worth” (Larry). Saint Laurent’s spring campaign has the power to decrease women’s self-esteem, as they may devalue themselves of themselves of qualities like intelligence, honesty, and kindness and instead base their worth off of how they look or how much they embody the overt sexuality that is depicted in the advertisements. Naturally, the models selected to represent Saint Laurent have bodies that most women cannot achieve, creating a cycle of constant dissatisfaction for women comparing themselves to the ideals to which they are exposed. The widespread nature of these consequences, coupled with the magnitude of the harm that these images may inflict, cause the teleological approach to be an invaluable way of analyzing the ethics of the objectification of women in advertising.

     It must also be noted that, in publishing the photos in their campaign, Saint-Laurent is exercising their right to free speech and to freedom of expression in order to create images that they believe promote their products. A deontologist, who chooses to look to a duty-based ethical framework, would argue that an audience couldn’t condemn Saint-Laurent for publishing the advertisements as it would be unethical to impose any restrictions on their content. As deontology also presents the human as a rational being with the power to make autonomous choices, it might be argued that people have the choice whether or not to consume advertisements and whether to accept the messages to which they are exposed. This approach would invalidate criticisms of advertising presented to rational beings, based on their content alone. However, it can be noted that successful advertising “creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behaviour over time” (Hollis). An advertisement that is immediately rejected by a viewer does not immediately disappear from their memory, and can have long-term consequences that the viewer may not be able to actively associate to any specific ad. The other significant problem with assuming that people can easily resist advertisement is that cumulative exposure to identity advertising can form symbols in people’s minds, where there make associations between physical images and what they say about a person. The key is the danger of cumulative exposure, as “it is not that we are unconscious of this process, but symbols are simply created this way […] it is like learning a new language as a child; the word “cat”, for example, comes to have meaning without our choosing it to”(Bishop, 383). A deontological approach is not sufficient for analyzing the harmful effects of advertising as it fails to consider all of the ways that rational beings can be influenced by ads, even if they actively resist the process.

     While Saint Laurent’s Spring 2017 campaign may have been provocative enough to raise ethical concerns regarding the values transmitted through the campaign’s images, the are definitely not the first brand to receive such a large backlash, and they most certainly won’t be the last. Many companies in the fashion industry have been or are currently guilty of objectifying women in a way that can contribute to the spread of negative values, which is why the ethics surrounding advertising is an important conversation to have.  Therefore, it can be concluded that each advertising entity has the responsibility to act sensibly with outcomes in mind, as “it is suggested that imbalance in advertising overall causes harm in ways that a single ad cannot” (Bishop 377). In the debate analyzing the ethics of sexually objectifying women in advertising, the negative ways that these images can affect the perceptions of the audiences that view them cannot be ignored. Therefore, teleology, an ethical framework rooted in examining consequences, is the most persuasive approach to take when attempting to resolve this ethical issue.



Works Cited


  1. Schorr, Collier. Saint Laurent Spring 2017 Campaign. Digital Image. January 2017. Accessed April 2017.
  2. Robinson, Julian. Yves Saint Laurent is accused of ‘degrading’ models and ‘inciting rape’ with French ad campaign featuring women opening their legs and bending over furniture. Mail Online. March 6th, 2017. Accessed April 2017.
  3. Kapferer, Jean-Noel. The New Strategic Brand Management. Kogan Page. 1997. Accessed April 2017.
  4. Bishop, John Douglas. Is Self-Identity Image Advertising Ethical? Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol 10, No. 2. Pp. 371-383. Cambridge University Press. April 2000. Accessed April 2017.
  5. Larry, Josée. Do Women with Low Self-Esteem Use Appearance to Feel Better? National Eating Disorder Information Centre. 2005. Accessed April 2017.
  6. Hollis, Nigel. Why Good Advertising Works (Even When You Think It Doesnt). The Atlantic. August 31st, 2011. Accessed April 2017.

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