Johannesburg — As controversy rages in Britain and South Africa over the Steven Maisels's sexy Sophie Dahl advertisement for Opium perfume, French feminists are turning up the heat in their war on a national ad industry that has long considered bare breasts an appropriate way to advertise anything from lawnmowers to low-fat margarine.
"We've been campaigning against sexist French advertising for 20 years, spraying graffiti on posters, writing to advertisers, and even starting a prize for the least sexist ad campaign," says Florence Montreynaud, a writer and historian who is organising the initiative.
"None of it has worked. It's time to confront ordinary people with the violence that these adverts perpetrate against women, to ask them to examine what they say about them and about French society, and simply to stop buying goods advertised in a sexist manner."
Montreynaud, who in 1999 founded the Guard Bitches, who are dedicated to stamping out sexist insults in public life, has launched a petition that has garnered the signatures of figures such as the former women's affairs minister, Yvette Roudy, MP Roselyne Bachelot, and the bestselling author Amélie Nothomb.
French manufacturers have long favoured the use of the naked female form to publicise their products. The very first cinema commercial, projected before the featured film in a turn-of-the-century French movie theatre, extolled the virtues of a pasta brand with the help of a scantily clad demoiselle.
Among today's more offensive examples are advertisements from the confectioner Suchard, which advertises its chocolates with a nude model and the words, "You say No; we hear Yes"; and a brand of cream ("Even whipped or beaten, Babette stays creamy"). The Nomade mobile phone campaign is illustrated with a picture of an obscene-looking inflatable doll and the words, "Your girlfriend will be open-mouthed"; a financial information database uses a pair of naked female buttocks and the slogan, "Has she got decent foundations? Check out the solidity of your company!" The latest advertisement for the fashion house Ungaro shows a werewolf licking a woman's bare body.
The petition also calls on advertisers and manufacturers to develop a code of non-sexist conduct in conjunction with its signatories, and will urge the French government to adopt legislation outlawing blatant sexism in advertising. "Advertisers use, out of all context, pictures of women's bodies and scenes of sexuality," it reads. "... Under a veil of so-called creativity they impose their norms and their fantasies. We say No! to degrading, devaluing and dehumanising images, and Yes! to human respect."
But the campaign faces an uphill struggle. French President Jacques Chirac has described his ideal woman as one who "served the men at table, never sat down with them, and never spoke". And the singer and artist Sacha Guitry once said: "If women were any good, God would have had one."