Sex Sells, But OOH Shouldn't Help

Outdoor advertising and media plays an increasingly important role in local communities and cities – from public information and safety notices (e.g. Amber Alerts, FBI Most Wanted, Hurricane Alerts) to helping brands and organizations reach consumers at scale. 

Throughout my career, I’ve also seen the out-of-home (OOH) industry help to build awareness for important social causes and spread meaningful ideas – from fostering free speech to stopping domestic and sexual abuse. I’ve had the good fortune of partnering with humanitarian organizations and leaders striving to improve their businesses and tackle challenges facing our communities and citizens. 

Several years ago, I was honored when Anne Ream and her team at The Voices and Faces Project asked me to use my experience and the visual power of OOH to further their efforts to thwart human trafficking through the End Demand Campaign. The campaign challenges myths and misconceptions surrounding sexual exploitation, human trafficking and prostitution, while simultaneously working to change legislation for women and men trafficked into the sex trade. 



The campaign continues to reach new cities each year, and has received significant support from the OOH industry to drive impact locally, while also breaking through the cacophony of digital noise. Together we helped to bring about new legislation and we were on-site during the historic 2016 Women’s March at the Nation’s Capital. I was proud to play a small role, and consider this campaign a shining example of the impact OOH can make in helping to create change. 

Despite this positive story, I read the headlines in dismay. As we've seen in the news recently, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and prostitution still destroy lives, nationwide. It's disappointing that when a national media story of this magnitude breaks people are discussing the myths of prostitution as a choice.  We have more work to do educating the electorate on the reality of prostitution.

The sad reality is that too often commerce trumps compassion. I am a staunch supporter of our first amendment rights. Free speech is vital in America and I am a firm believer in its value in our democracy. But I also believe in common decency.

Out-of-home media owners, many of whom supported the End Demand Campaign and champion anti-trafficking messages, continue to accept ads which are sexually exploitative. It is inconsistent to be on both sides of this issue.

I stand with Patrick O’Donnell, President of Yesco who recently said, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean we should.” I urge decision-makers in our industry to adhere to a humane, common-sense approach. I implore them to consider the damaging effects caused by promoting sexually orientated businesses with visuals that perpetuate myths and marginalize victims.

I know it’s a slippery slope. Common decency is not universal doctrine, but there is precedent. Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis vs. Ohio in 1964 famously said, “I know it when I see it,” referring to the landmark case which considered whether free speech applied to hard-core pornography. The recent concern generated by a billboard in Boise, Idaho demonstrates another instance of community members knowing it when they see it, and wanting to keep their community free of messaging that degrades and dehumanizes.   

I’ve seen firsthand that many of my colleagues in the out-of-home industry stand on the right side of this issue, but we have to take it a step further. We cannot tell media owners how to choose their clientele; what we can do, is choose whether to empower their choices through commerce and trade.

We know our messaging has great impact – it prompts discussion and drives action. If our industry turns a blind eye to the kind of action we promote through our messaging, we implicate ourselves.

It’s time for strip club and massage parlor ads to come down.

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