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European Ad Proposal Ignites Debate

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LOS ANGELES A proposal by the European Parliament to curb advertising that reinforces gender stereotypes has ignited a debate about who should determine what is sexist and whether the group has the authority to make such suggestions in the first place.

The effort is spearheaded by Swedish European Parliament member Eva Britt-Svensson who in a non-binding report wrote: "Gender stereotyping in advertising straitjackets women, men, girls and boys by restricting individuals to predetermined and artificial roles that are often degrading, humiliating and dumbed down for both sexes."

Guy Hayward, managing partner of Omnicom's 180 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, said, "The [European Parliament] should reassure themselves that there is no sexism in their own organization before turning their blunt gaze to advertising."
 
He added, "The EU must have bigger fish to fry than this but advertisers, agencies and advertising regulatory bodies should be keeping sexism out of advertising."
 
Adonis Hoffman, svp and counsel at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in Washington, D.C., and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said any attempt "to make sure that there is some responsibility and ethical treatment of women in commercial advertising is an admirable goal.
 
"In the U.S. context, we have to consider our robust system of commercial speech protected by our Constitution," Hoffman said. "With certain exceptions -- say when commercials are untruthful, illegal or make unfair claims -- they can go forward."
 
From a practical standpoint, Hoffman asked, "Who determines what is sexist? Who determines what is offensive?" He likened the situation to advertising food that some people regard as unhealthy.

"Ours is not a perfect system," Hoffman said. "But as the Europeans move forward in their efforts to curtail commercialism, we are going to have more of these conversations."