Controversial advertising: Transgressing the taboo of gender based violence

Lauren Gurrieri, Jan Brace-Govan, Helene Cherrier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose – To date, the cultural and societal effects of controversial advertising have been insufficiently considered. This study aims to investigate how advertising that uses violent representations of women transgresses the taboo of gender-based violence.
Design/methodology/approach – This study encompasses a visual analysis of the subject positions of women in five violent advertising representations and a critical discourse analysis of the defensive statements provided by the client organisations subsequent to the public outrage generated by the campaigns.
Findings – The authors identify taboo transgression in the Tease, Piece of Meat and Conquered subject positions, wherein women are represented as suggestive, dehumanised and submissive. Client organisations seek to defend these taboo transgressions through the use of three discursive strategies – subverting interpretations, making authority claims and denying responsibility – which legitimise the control of the organisations but simultaneously work to obscure the power relations at play.
Practical implications – The representational authority that advertisers hold as cultural intermediaries in society highlights the need for greater consideration of the ethical responsibilities in producing controversial advertisements, especially those which undermine the status of women.
Social implications – Controversial advertising that transgresses the taboo of violence against women reinforces gender norms and promotes ambiguous and adverse understandings of women’s subjectivities by introducing pollution and disorder to gender politics.
Originality/value – This paper critically assesses the societal implications of controversial advertising practices, thus moving away from the extant focus on managerial implications. Through a conceptualisation of controversial advertising as transgressing taboo boundaries, the authors highlight how advertising plays an important role in shifting these boundaries whereby taboos come to be understood as generative and evolving. However, this carries moral implications which may have damaging societal effects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1448-1469
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Journal of Marketing
Issue number7/8
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Gender
  • Advertising ethics
  • Advertising representations
  • Controversial advertising
  • Sexual violence
  • Taboo advertising

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