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Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 14:42 UK

Scandinavian split on sexist ads

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Sweden has decided not to ban sexist advertising, saying it would risk undermining the country's cherished right to freedom of speech.

Swedish footballer Fredrik Ljungberg appears in an underwear ad
In Norway, ads can use sexual images but they must be relevant
But the decision puts the country at odds with its Nordic neighbours. Norway and Denmark have strict limits on the use of such images for commercial gain.

In Norway, sexist advertising has been banned since 2003. The ban forms part of a much broader package of legal limits on advertising, protecting the depiction of religion, sexuality, race and gender.

"Basically, if something is offensive or it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable when they look at it, it shouldn't be done", explained Sol Olving, head of Norway's Kreativt Forum, an association of the country's top advertising agencies.

"Naked people are wonderful, of course, but they have to be relevant to the product. You could have a naked person advertising shower gel or a cream, but not a woman in a bikini draped across a car."

Creative

Norwegian firms that refuse to remove or alter offensive adverts after having a complaint upheld face a hefty fine of 500,000 Norwegian kroner (49,000; 62,500 euros).

But Ms Olving says there were no complaints about the law from advertisers, who have learnt to come up with less obvious ways of persuading consumers to part with their cash.

We're not that puritan that you can't have naked bodies - but it has to be done in the right way, with charm and passion
Sol Olving, Head of Norway's Kreativt Forum

But in Denmark, where similar guidelines have been in place since 1993, some firms are ready to exploit the additional free publicity they will get from being highlighted.

Denmark's advertising ombudsman recounts a recent example of a male underwear company which was forced to withdraw adverts portraying women in low-paid jobs, after outrage from several trade unions.

One ad in the series showed a nurse lying on a bed with the male underpants covering her face, implying that she had just had sex with a patient.

"People in these different occupations already have problems with sexual discrimination," says ombudsman Henrik Oe. "You cannot play on the male fantasy that a patient can have sex with a nurse just to sell a product."

"These areas of employment are already ones where women are already vulnerable to sexual harassment," he added.

Both Norway and Denmark are keen to emphasise that their advertising limits do not prevent freedom of speech, stifle creativity or mean that there is never a beautiful naked human form on display.

In Denmark, Mr Oe says, many advertisers are becoming increasingly creative, using humour to stretch the boundaries and appeal to Danish consumers.

He says he receives only around 10 complaints about sexist advertising each year and that firms normally remove the offending images quickly.

Self-control

From Oslo, Ms Olving says: "We're not that puritan that you can't have naked bodies. But it has to be done in the right way, with charm and passion."

A man walks past an underwear advert (file)
Sweden says freedom of expression is a fundamental right
Sweden, however, despite commissioning a special government rapporteur to look into the matter, is not following the legal professor's advice that freedom of speech does not extend to commercial messages and limits are needed.

"This law would be against freedom of speech, which is protected by the constitution," said Malin Engstedt, spokesperson for Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni.

"The minister is not convinced that this law would improve things," she added.

Ms Engstedt said the Swedish government was confident that efforts made by the country's advertisers themselves - including the introduction of an ombudsman similar to Denmark's to oversee adverts - would be more effective.

"They are more than capable of finding other ways of advertising their products," she said.



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