Get a life over Rent-a-Wife

The decision of a Belgian court to ban an ironic advertising campaign on the grounds of sexism reveals a patronising view of men and women.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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Welcome to Belgium, where the drive for ‘sexual equality’ is now getting beyond a joke. A government-run equality institution has forced a DVD rental company to stop an amusing advertising campaign on the grounds that it is sexist. But the patronising view of women endorsed by this decision, and the chilling effect the ruling will have on other advertisers, is far more offensive than the highly ironic campaign.

The advertising campaign in question was launched in early 2007 by the Belgian DVD rental company DVDPost, and consisted mainly of the website Rent-a-Wife where one could supposedly rent ‘women’ as one can rent DVDs. To illustrate the powerful search engine and sheer variety of the DVD rental service, customers could search from 9,500 ‘wives’ by hair colour, measurements, age, eye colour and ethnicity. Visitors to the website were also allowed to swap ‘wives’ and exchange them at any time. A short clip (see below) illustrated how the rental service worked: the customer wraps the ‘woman’ he no longer needs and puts her in a box, the postman arrives to deliver the new ‘woman’ and picks up the box containing the ‘used’ one, and all this at the simple click of a button! In short, the website illustrated – by means of this catchy and rather funny un-PC example – how the DVD rental company worked and the advantages to be obtained by signing up for the service. Pretty clever, huh?

But the Belgian Institute for the Equality of Women and Men (IEWM) was not amused. A federal government institution, established in December 2002, the IEWM’s broad responsibility is ‘ensuring and promoting equal opportunities for women and men and to combat any form of discrimination and inequality based on gender’. To this end, the Institute is authorised, among other things, to handle complaints on the basis of the discrimination legislation and to take people to court if and when it sees fit.

So the IEWM decided to have it out with Rent-a-Wife which they accused of being ‘discriminatory’ and ‘sexist’ and demanded that the website be taken offline. When the companies involved failed to comply with this demand, the IEWM sued them and won the case. The companies were also fined and ordered to publish the verdict on the once-hilarious website, where it can still be found. The DVD rental company also had to pay for the IEWM’s victorious press conference. But was this website ad really so bad and sexually discriminatory? And why did the court rule that it should be banned on the grounds of harassment and incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence?

According to the IEWM, the advertising campaign was discriminatory since ‘women are depicted as mere merchandise, that can easily be exchanged, with men as their users’ and that the ‘use of such stereotypes, that might be considered as sexist, goes against the discrimination legislation’. They claimed that the company behind the adverts was guilty of sexual harassment and incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence. Surprisingly, the court went along with this point of view. Concerning harassment, the judge considered the website and its movie, as well as the dissemination given to it by the defendants, to constitute ‘a scenario of which no-one in their right senses can gainsay that it… satisfies this provision impeccably’.

Watch the Rent-a-Wife commercial via YouTube

The court also found the defendants guilty of incitement, agreeing with the IEWM that: ‘the entire discourse of the website’ treats women as ‘merchandise, as a sexual object’, which is ‘moreover emphasised by the exchangeability’. The judge also added an argument of his own. He quoted a ‘famous movie actor’ from the US, who once was ‘presented with the question: “Can one laugh at everything?”‘ According to the judge, this actor answered ‘in a wise yet nuanced fashion: “Yes, but not in front of just anyone.”‘ This too led the judge to conclude that the prohibition of incitement was breached ‘since the campaign involved was aimed at just anyone’.

Leaving aside the fact that anecdotes about American actors aren’t generally considered sources of law, there are several other issues arising here with the way in which the incitement provision is applied. The Belgian Constitutional Court has stipulated a number of criteria for attributing incitement, with the most important of these being ‘special intent’ – in other words, aside from the fact that the content of words and expressions must in fact incite or provoke hatred and discrimination, it must also be demonstrated that such was the defendant’s malicious intention. Nowhere does this ruling attempt to demonstrate anything of the sort though, and it is thus unconstitutional. Moreover, even on the level of mere content it does not demonstrate that the campaign actively incites anything other than renting DVDs.

On the question of harassment, the relevant provision, based on European anti-discrimination law, was initially designed for the workplace. In Belgium, the prohibition of harassment has been broadened to cover the entire scope of the Anti-Discrimination Act: and it is therefore also applicable to the domain of goods and services, as in this case. However, the law requires that the action or behaviour entails an infraction of the dignity of one or more concrete persons, not just an abstract group such as women in general. In other words, it’s not intended to cover this kind of (alleged) ‘group defamation’. It only covers social situations in which someone is the direct object of harassment or intimidation, and that is not the case here at all. In other words, the ruling is legally indefensible as well as being ridiculous.

The verdict also fails to offer any clear criteria as to what is and what is not permissible. Judging from this case, it looks like just about anything un-PC could pass for harassment and incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence. In which case, why not ban a whole lot of other Belgian commercials too? Why not start with the classic ‘Les Hommes Savent Pourquoi!’ (‘Men Know Why!)’ ad for a major beer brand? And what to do with: ‘It’s Prohibited For Women to Drive a Hyron’? What to think of the information campaign that was recently launched by the regulatory body of the advertising world, the Jury for Ethical Commercial Practices (JEP)? The JEP asks: ‘Why Can’t Women Put On Mascara With Their Mouths Closed?’ accompanied by the image of a sexy women who is indeed donning her mascara with a suggestively open mouth. And what about the ad for the touring male stripshow, the Chippendales? ‘Feel the Heat!’ it says, next to a larger-than-life photo of a ‘six pack’ – with significant ‘insight’ into the genital area…

The above examples all appear to be just as ‘guilty’ of ‘sexual discrimination’ as Rent-a-Wife. Ironically, the IEWM’s patronising view of women – so vulnerable that they would feel harassed and discriminated against by a funny commercial – is much more offensive a view of women’s intelligence than the jokey packing’n’posting antics depicted in the Rent-a-Wife commercial. Moreover, since the Rent-a-Wife ruling says nothing about the way in which we can decide what is and what is not allowed, this sort of verdict tends to result in a high degree of uncertainty about the meaning of the law and has a chilling effect on all kinds of legitimate forms of expression.

The Institute’s campaigns don’t end here. They’re now bent on banning a commercial for the traditional Belgian beer, Kasteelbier, because it depicts: ‘stereotypical gender roles’. In this rather anodyne commercial (see below), a middle-aged man sporting an oversized Bismarckian moustache, relaxing near the fireplace in his dressing gown, exclaims: ‘Wife, I don’t know what it is, but something’s missing.’ Instantaneously, his ever-smiling, sexy, young and obviously psychic wife appears with a glass of beer on a tray, and seductively says: ‘Your Kasteelbier, of course!’ ‘Dazzit!’, responds the man, visibly pleased by so much womanly understanding. Clearly overjoyed, he drowns his moustache in his refreshing beer, while the voiceover closes: ‘Kasteelbier, pleasure at home.’

Watch the Kasteelbier commercial via YouTube

Pleasure? The IEWM begged to differ: ‘Such a commercial of barely half a minute where the old, traditional, stereotypical gender roles are portrayed, nullifies our sensitivisation campaigns. We are looking into ways to tackle such ads. If we receive an official complaint, we shall undertake further steps.’ The IEWM has officially placed a ‘Wanted’ sign on this ad: all the Institute needs now is a complaint to act. No longer satisfied with battling ‘sexist’ advertising campaigns, the IEWM’s new mission is to challenge ‘stereotypical gender roles’ through advertising regulations! This is no longer a ‘slippery slope’: we’ve slid all the way down the slope, and the water’s rising well above our heads.

Not only does banning a commercial do nothing to change male and female roles in society, but these sort of cases have also been shown to erode public support for anti-discrimination legislation in general. A study commissioned by the UK Equal Opportunities Commission (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the closest British equivalent of the IEWM, demonstrated that the public at large is very dismissive of equality claims that are perceived as trivial or overly politically correct – and rightly so. It’s hard to think of better illustrations of this than than the Rent-a-Wife and Kasteelbier cases. The report in question, entitled Talking Equality, concluded that cases that are experienced as insufficiently serious have a significant adverse impact on the public basis for the legal struggle against discrimination in general. It is no coincidence that opponents of discrimination legislation have specialised in consciously advancing all kinds of petty and futile cases.

Worse still, both the complaints and the ruling seem to deem people as unwitting idiots, unable to tell the difference between genuine oppression and a funny website commercial. Throughout the Rent-a-Wife trial, the IEWM seriously questioned the capacity of people to grasp the fact that the website was in fact an ironic DVD commercial: ‘That this commercial wishes to prompt people to rent DVDs online is not clear initially and the alleged ironic nature of the site will therefore escape many people’, they said. Hilariously, the director of the IEWM added, with great concern: ‘It appears to really be about renting women.’ This line of reasoning is also clear in the ruling: the ‘contested commercial’ was, according to the judge, liable to mislead the public ‘for the reason that the offer consists in female companions… while in reality it concerns renting DVDs.’ That famous, fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, would surely be proud of such analytic insight.

The court’s ruling suggests that Belgian citizens are basically in need of state protection from horrible advertising campaigns that either mislead them into thinking they were getting a brand new wife or reinforce their horrible preconceptions about gender roles! If the outlandish idea of renting women did not by itself give away the joke, the numerous plays on words, typically referring to video and DVD (‘done watching?’; ‘no late fees’; etc.), would have. If all else failed, the explicit reference to the fact that the site concerned a commercial campaign – ‘ceci est une publicité’ – should have made it clear even to a child.

All this does not mean that ads such as Rent-a-Wife are tasteful. Maybe it’s time for Kasteelbier to join everyone else in the twenty-first century rather than trading on tired stereotypes. But these matters should not be the stuff of court rulings.

Jogchum Vrielink is a researcher at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) specialising in hate speech and anti-discrimination law. Maria Grasso is the co-convenor of the Institute of Ideas Postgrad Forum and is researching a PhD on the decline of political activism in Western Europe at Nuffield College, Oxford University.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild argued that advertising bans imposed by the UK advertising watchdog constrain free expression. Brendan O’Neill said advertising is a free speech issue. Patrick West found postmodern advertising a turn-off. Wendy Earle argued that the power of the media to control kids has been exaggerated. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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