Stockholm’s advertising ban: what should be censored and who gets to decide?

Stockholm’s municipal government is making recent headlines as it is expected to follow London and Paris in banning public advertisements deemed sexist or racist. The city’s effort to eliminate discriminatory or offensive advertising feels right in step with the rise of movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. While many people see this forthcoming legislation as a positive reaction to the insidiousness of sexist and racist undertones in the media, others are questioning how far this censorship will go and whether or not it should be left to politicians to determine what is acceptable.

To discuss these questions, we use the Socratic method – a form of argumentative dialogue developed in the 5th century BCE, which is a perfect example of critical thinking – to consider the issue from multiple perspectives.

What can be learned from applying the Socratic method to this debate on acceptable forms of government censorship?

First, let us identify the key players who reflect the multiple viewpoints on this issue:

  • Daniel Hellden: one of Stockholm’s deputy mayors and an advocate for the ban.
  • Anders Ericson: chief executive of The Association of Swedish Advertisers.

NB: This is by no means an exhaustive list and these individuals merely act as representatives for two complex and diverse sides of the debate. The following dialogues are constructed and informed by articles, statements, and debates held on the subject. Please see the bibliography for a full list of articles used.
 

Daniel Hellden


Daniel Hellden: “The city has a responsibility towards its citizens, to ensure that advertising they are exposed to is not offensive or upsetting in any way. We need to make sure that sexist and racist advertising doesn’t appear.” 

The Questioner: How will the city determine what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate images? What are you doing to standardize regulations and not leave them to the discretion of individual politicians or the reigning political ideology?

Daniel Hellden: The criteria will follow the same established guidelines set out by the Reklamombusmannen (the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman). This is an independent national organization which provides nonpartisan guidance in ethical marketing. Stockholm’s new legislation will follow the same standards but will extend the power of the ombudsman. Since the Reklamombusmannen cannot issue sanctions, the new ban will allow Stockholm City Council to order that offending images be removed within 24 hours.  “But it won't be us as politicians who make that judgment."

The Questioner: Efforts to implement similar legislation in the past were halted due to consideration that this type of law may be against the rules of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. What do you say to your opponents who feel this is a form of government censorship?

Daniel Hellden: Sweden has a long history of protecting the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. However, part of our country’s fundamental laws on freedom of expression “criminalize expression considered to be hate speech, and prohibit threats or expressions of contempt directed against a group or member of a group.” Advertisements that degrade women or reinforce racial stereotypes fall firmly under that category. We will also be conducting a full review of this new legislation after the first year.

The Questioner: Other countries that have implemented similar legislation have drawn negative attention with claims of gender-based double standards entering the equation. In the UK, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority banned an ad that objectified women, but did not ban one in which a male model was undressing that “received 120 complaints that the ad was objectifying towards both men and women.” How are you going to handle pervasive and inherent gender-based double standards when considering advertisements?

Daniel Hellden: That’s an important consideration. The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman has a demonstrated history of regulating advertisements that are deemed sexist or objectifying to both men and women. For example, the ombudsman ruled against a chocolate ad that objectified a shirtless man. The cropping of the image which cut out his head, thus dehumanizing him, was one of the factors which led to the decision that this particular ad objectified the man as purely a sex object.

The Questioner: The move toward this type of legislation is following a popular trend as many other European countries have implemented similar laws in recent years. How much are you influenced by the examples of neighboring nations?

Daniel Hellden: More than anything I’m thinking about my responsibility to the Swedish population and to young women like my daughters. "I know my daughters, they don't like it. They feel bad. We should not as a city be part of this sort of advertising. I have a responsibility to the citizens of Stockholm to ban this."


What do we learn in the course of these questions? 

  • Supporters of the advertising ban see it as an extension of Sweden’s protections against hate speech and discrimination.
  • Politicians like Daniel Hellden don’t see this legislation as a partisan effort or as subject to misuse by shifting political ideologies as they have chosen to rely on the non-partisan Swedish Advertising Ombudsman to establish the guidelines for the ban.
  • The city feels responsible for shielding citizens from offensive or inappropriate images.
  • The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman is committed to combatting gender-based double standards in advertising.

 

Anders Ericson


Anders Ericson: This ban is a “dangerous” restriction on freedom of expression. “I think it's wrong. Because if the advertising ombudsman comes to one conclusion and Stockholm city council comes to another conclusion, exactly on the same advertisement, who will we listen to?

The Questioner: Deputy mayor David Hellden insists that the government will work in conjunction with both the advertising ombudsman and the adverting industry to avoid impinging on freedom of speech or coming to conflicting conclusions. How will you work with these organizations should the legislation pass?

Anders Ericson: We need to maintain Sweden’s standards and role as global leaders when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. It’s important that we not give too much power to the reigning political party, particularly when it comes to laws that allow certain forms of government censorship. “It is dangerous to go around and be fought [sic] with such short-term populism.” The ethical guidelines leave room for broad interpretation and there is already an independent, non-partisan institution in place “with extensive practices for the investigation of gender discrimination” which will keep the issue away from a subjective political party. Besides, “Sweden is probably the country with the least sexist advertising in the world.

The Questioner: While Sweden is known for its liberal ideology and strong value of social justice, how do you respond to the fact that a report by the Swedish Women’s Lobby found that Sweden is the worst among the Nordic countries when it comes to sexist advertising?

Anders Ericson: That study specifically found that Sweden lacks regulation and sanctions around advertising. That doesn’t mean that our advertising community is inherently more sexist or racist. Swedish advertisers are already doing “a really terrific job” of self-regulating. “It's enough to visit our neighbors to see significantly more” sexist advertising.”

The Questioner: One ad that brought the issue of self-regulation to the forefront recently was an H&M advertisement that pictured a black child wearing a hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle.” How do you respond to an incident like that?

Anders Ericson: I think that’s a great example of the self-regulation we’re discussing. The advertisement was inappropriate and consumers responded accordingly. With the power and speed of social media, consumers are able to make themselves heard and hold advertisers accountable when they see an offensive ad like that. And in this case they were successful. H&M released a public apology and I doubt they will make the same mistake twice. The current model keeps the power in the hands of consumers to dictate what ads and companies they want to support, and which they don’t. I believe it’s better to keep that power where it is rather than handing it over to the discretion of the ruling political ideology.


What do we learn in the course of these questions?

  • Opponents of the ban believe it is too open to interpretation to preserve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
  • Opponents see the choice to move regulation away from a non-partisan body and into the political sphere as a form of government censorship.
  • Opponents see potential conflicts arising from having both the city council and the ombudsman regulating advertising.
  • Opponents don’t feel legislation is needed to regulate offensive advertising as the industry will self-regulate in response to social justice issues.

 

*** What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below ***

  

Bibliography