The just outcry surrounding the billboards targeting Stella Creasy is a painful reminder both of the need for reform of political advertising and for an urgent reappraisal of the treatment of women in public life.
Perhaps you were walking your daughter to school, on a bus on the way to work, or mindlessly scrolling your Twitter feed. You didn’t choose to see it. Yet once you had, especially if you work within the creative industries, it’s almost impossible not to feel ashamed, angry and compelled to act.
Billboards targeting Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, were bought by the anti-abortion group the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBRUK) over the weekend, featuring an image which the group claims to represent a nine-week living foetus. Yet even a cursory glance on the NHS website suggests the image is misleading and the response on Twitter underlined how painful and triggering it has been for many women.
The campaign has, so far, triggered 300 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
The ads were purchased by the UK branch of the American anti-abortion organisation CBRUK, which has been running a targeted movement against the MP called ‘Stop Stella’. This is because the MP for Walthamstow successfully tabled an amendment to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where it remained illegal. The vote was passed by 332 to 99.
A moral vacuum for political advertising
There is no question that these billboards are little more than advertising as an act of violence towards women; hate speech in advertising form.
Yet they are also a damning indictment of what passes as ‘free speech’ in the moral vacuum that currently surrounds the reckless lack of regulation of political advertising. In the UK today there are currently more regulations surrounding what you can say about a bar of soap than about a woman’s body.
Since political advertising in the UK is not regulated, organisations are free to print made-up claims. It’s a state of play which means for an industry in which trust is the most precious of commodities, we are currently only ever one Brexit-bus away from disaster.
According to the ASA, the initial view of the campaign is that the billboards may not, in fact, fall under the guise of ‘political advertising’, defined as ads intended to influence voters in a local, regional, national or international election or referendum. This would mean it would be covered by its remit. Yet as the ad has been withdrawn, that discussion closed, and a final decision was not reached on that point.
Such nuances may well be lost on the average consumer. For the uncomfortable truth is that for that person on the street who saw this campaign on their way to school, or in the subsequent news and television coverage, this is perhaps all they see of the advertising industry. A distortion of the truth and a highly triggering personal attack on one of only a handful of women in public life. The very worst the industry has to offer.
Drawing a line
Clear Channel has “sincerely apologised” for the billboards and taken steps to remove them. Local residents had already taken matters into their own hands, painting over one and replacing another with a picture of a kitten. While Stella Creasy has called on the outdoor giant to donate any money received for the campaign to Abortion Support Network, a small charity providing information, funding and accommodation for people forced to travel for safe, legal abortion.
Addressing the toxic impact of this campaign is about so much more than simply targeting an individual media owner. For the fact that this hateful campaign is even seeing the light of day is reflective both of the lack of proper oversight of political advertising and an outright recklessness that permeates our culture when it comes to the treatment of women in public office. Hate speech has become so normalised that we have become too dulled to it to do anything about it.
In Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly writes that the anger we have as women is “an act of radical imagination”. The widespread anger this campaign has generated must be channelled into more positive action.
As an industry we have a long way to go in creating the space for greater inclusion, kindness and social responsibility. Data from Creative Equals shows that 12% of women plan to leave the creative industries in the next two years. The voices we need the most; those of compassion, consideration and inclusion, are in danger of not being heard, or worse still, leaving altogether.
We need to do more than simply point out a problem exists; we need to commit to being part of the solution. Organisations like Creative Equals, She Says, Bloom, The Other Box and The Conscious Advertising Network all need our support.
In the face of such a hateful personal attack, we must come together, not just to urgently address the lack of oversight of political advertising, but to draw a line. To publicly commit to ensuring such a hateful campaign marks the end of carelessness towards women in this industry, both in its output and the make-up of its creative teams.
Nicola Kemp is managing editor of BITE, at Creativebrief and on the advisory board of Creative Equals. She tweets @nickykc