Jeremy Lee on Media: Unproven and unworkable

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

Home Office report into the effect of sexual imagery on children looks like simple electioneering.

While not quite summoning the forces of hell, Dr Linda Papadopoulos' report for the government into the sexualisation of children and the apparent link between sexual imagery and violence against women appears to raise some potentially uncomfortable issues that the media industry and marketers will need to address.

In particular, the year-long study by the Big Brother psychologist, which was commissioned by the Home Office, directs its wrath toward lads' mags. It accuses them of containing a 'high degree of highly sexualised images of women that blur the lines between pornography and main-stream media'.

Among the headlines, Papadopoulos recommends that retailers should adopt a mandatory code that ensures that these magazines are clearly marked as recommended for sale only to people over the age of 15.

Had she done any deeper analysis, Papadopoulos would have noticed that the lads' magazine sector has been in a downward spiral for years, with the downmarket weeklies Zoo and Nuts suffering year-on-year declines of 29.9% and 24.4% respectively, according to the latest ABC figures.

The monthlies also suffered, with the totemic title Loaded continuing its inexorable descent, down nearly 21% on the previous year and shifting just over 71,000 copies.

The surest way to make something more desirable to kids is to put an age limit on it, so this is likely to have the opposite effect to that intended, bolstering sales. Plus there is far greater sexual imagery freely available on the internet, but the report is less clear on what regulation can be introduced to curb access in that area.

It does, however, recommend that local authorities vet the content of outdoor ads as 'part of their gender equality duty to ensure that images and messages are not offensive on the grounds of gender'. Again, this may seem like an eye-catching policy, but in reality would probably be unworkable and appears to suggest that the current regulatory system is flawed, yet there is little evidence of that.

The report further proposes that publishers be required to use a 'ratings' symbol to show the extent to which photographs in magazines that target teen and pre-teen audiences have been airbrushed. While photo manipulation is a recurring and topical issue - and one that is explored in greater depth on page 13 - the study fails to make a convincing academic link between it and subsequent violence against women.

For marketers, there may be something to heed here - but that something should be part of any normal CSR initiative that most would deem sensible, desirable and tasteful, with brands and retailers taking a responsible attitude.

No one underestimates the seriousness of violence against women, but this report by the populist Papadopoulos does not do it justice by any stretch of the imagination.

At best, her report appears to be well-meaning, if naive. In fact, it is difficult not to conclude that it is mere populist electioneering and political posturing emanating from the Home Office.

This puts it on a par with David Cameron's recent simplistic pledge to strike from the COI roster for three years any agency that has produced an ad that has been deemed to sexualise children.

So, perhaps the media industry and marketers might be better off ignoring it until something more substantial and scientific comes along.

Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk

30 SECONDS ON ... Dr Linda Papadopoulos

- Canadian counselling psychologist and author Dr Linda Papadopoulos appears regularly on TV, radio and in print providing psychological commentary and information. She initially became known to UK audiences through her appearances on and talking about Channel 4 series Big Brother, and US viewers for her work on VH-1's Celebrity Fit Club. She is also Cosmopolitan's resident psychologist and a contributing editor.

- Dr Linda, as she likes to be known, has written several books and texts, specialising in the psychological treatment of poor body image and skin problems.

- She earned her BA (hons) in psychology from York University in Toronto, Canada, her MSc in health psychology from the University of Surrey and a PhD in psychology from City University, London. She was appointed Reader in psychology at London Metropolitan University in 2001.

- Dr Linda has been a chartered psychologist for more than 12 years and worked with clients both privately and within the NHS. She has also worked with companies including Diageo, Dior, Brantano and Camelot on research into topics such as consumer behaviour.

- Dr Linda appeared on Celebrity Mastermind last December, answering questions on grunge band Nirvana. She came third.

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