We met Sierra, a single mother of two, at Kennington tube station in South London. Sierra identifies as Black British, and walks using two sticks, due to limited mobility. On this rather windy day, she moved slowly but deliberately across the street to meet us before gesturing to the bus stop.
The advertisement situated on the bus stop, pictured here, was for American Apparel and featured a large-scale image of a woman in Caucasian flesh coloured underwear and the tagline ‘We’re Back. To Basics.”
Sierra stopped in front of the advert stating she was quite “shocked” and further:
I thought they [American Apparel] really couldn’t be so bold to put something like that on an advert for children to see, for adults to see, and I find sometimes that adverts can be quite sexual and it seems like they seem to be advertising more for sex than actually for the actual product…
Sierra was one of the women we met because, as part of the Mayor of London’s 2018 #BehindEveryGreatCity gender equality campaign, Professor Jessica Ringrose had been commissioned to conduct research on women’s experiences of London’s public advertising. The research report launched this summer, was entitled The Women We See: gender and diversity in advertising, and drew upon a multimedia documentary-style study that involved two interactive “talk back” art projects with school girls, a survey of 2000 Londoners, and commuting travelling interviews with women throughout London.
The team included Dr. Kaitlyn Regehr, a film ethnographer from the University of Kent, who joined the research team to design and conduct these travelling interviews and Shiva Zarabadi, a doctoral UCL IOE candidate specialising in walking methodologies. In April 2018 we began moving through London’s public spaces with a GoPro camera and a Dictaphone. We had imagined that the overriding theme of these interviews would be commuting to and from work and that most of our encounters would centre around a place of employment. But while one woman spoke of a long and exhausting hour and a half commute, and another discussed to her will to walk to work at all costs, “journeys” and “public space” seemed to be delightfully porous and malleable terms, which were interpreted differently by each participant.
One woman met us at a hospital in Park Royal. Another at a music venue at Wood Green. We met a nightclub goer on her way back from a night out in Soho; a new mother in Tottenham on her one of her first journeys out with the buggy; and a pensioner in Putney on a stroll to her local sewing shop. It was through these experiences that we, the researchers, began to think more critically about personal versions of public space and the relationships to media displayed within it. We found that experiences of advertising function very differently in public space than it does in private space (on, let’s say, a tablet or television).
Returning to the bus stop, Sierra was not terribly concerned about her own consumption of these images. She worries about the impact of such images on her seven-year-old daughter. She worries because it is “very hard” to show “young girls…the right way” and she directly implicates advertisements and this struggle. In fact, she has instituted a rule in her household. When a targeted add pops up on her daughter’s tablet, they “turn it over”. They slowly count to five and wait, before seeing if the add has passed. This is to mitigate the number of advertisements her daughter sees in a day. But, of course, this technique can only be used to limit advertisements appearing on personal media, presumably being consumed in personal space. We wondered how this instinct to “turn it over” functioned, or (mal)functioned in public space, and how this technique might relate to the bus stop. We asked Sierra. “I can’t flip it over”, she stated frankly, “If it’s something I can walk away from then I will, but …when I was walking towards the bus stop, there is no way. I cannot avoid it really”, Sierra paused for a moment and then proceeded in a measured and thoughtful manner:
….I think they need to be more conscious about sexualising everything, everything seems to be about sex nowadays, and it’s not fair on the young people, they need to be able to grow and identify who they are, and what they want in life, without being forced to see certain images and think they have to comply to them.
A main theme that resonated in this project was that advertising in public space is dissimilar to advertising in private space and turning adverts off isn’t an option. Conceptually, we need to understand that public advertising is therefore non-consensual –something that is imposed on people as they travel around the city. To take the American Apparel advert, it sexualises the space around it, and different bodies will interact with the image and message of the advertisement in varying ways. Sierra is worried about a seven-year-old being “forced” to see certain content on her daily commute to school and their family’s inability to “flip” the bus stop over. In a super-diverse densely populated city such as London, whose public transit is subsidised by advertising, these concerns need to be taken seriously.
Responding to this research, City Hall and Transport for London have launched an advertising competition calling on creative agencies and brands to challenge gender stereotypes, increase diversity and create more positive and inclusive campaigns. The winning campaign will win £500,000 worth of advertising space across the TfL network. As researchers, we are awaiting with great anticipation to see what the great creative minds of London can come up with!
You can find the Full Women We See research report and details of the competition here.