Why one man's outraged gasp is another's yawn
Sex sells - the kind of truism upon which entire industries are based. In this case, an industry largely involving provocative photography and suggestive innuendo.
But the era of sexually stereotyped marketing may be drawing to a close, courtesy of Anna Diamantopoulou, EU Commissioner for Social Affairs.
Stories of this kind are manna for the tabloids, many seizing upon this one as an example of Brussels' "loony leftiness".
But Diamantopoulou championed two directives against substantial commercial interests and, whilst extending workplace sexual harassment laws across the EU, she revealed that she had been forced to quit a job as a student due to sexual harassment. The "Save Page 3" brigade should take her seriously.
Insiders at the Commission describe the issue as "a trial balloon", but clearly plans are being made. A leaked document states that "the purpose is to avoid throughout all forms of mass media all stereotypical portrayals of women and men, as well as unacceptable images affecting human dignity and decency in advertisements".
So sexist imagery would be out then, but so too campaigns such as the thought-provoking (and not entirely successful) "United Colours of Benetton"?
It took close to 1,000 complaints to see the banning of the Opium campaign featuring Sophie Dahl dressed only in strappy heels and fine jewellery. And by the time that had been achieved, Yves Saint Laurent had received more publicity than it could have hoped for.
The case provides for a striking contrast in public attitudes across the continent. In France, not a single complaint was received. But then this is a nation that tolerates a security firm advert showing a chastity belt clad woman and the line "even in those days, it was a good idea to protect your belongings". Even more extreme was chocolate maker Suchard's nude female alongside "You say no, but we hear yes". In such an environment, the artistically shot reclining supermodel was likely to be greeted with more of a yawn than a gasp.
On the other hand, in 1994, Gossard launched perhaps the most memorable clothing campaign of all time, featuring some inexpensive photography and an unknown model. Breaking away from tradition in lingerie advertising, the model stared provocatively into the camera lens. What was groundbreaking was the shameless targeting of an underwear line to men. Complaints were numerous, but the Advertising Standards Agency backed the adverts, saying they were clearly intended to be humorous.
Herein lies the problem for the marketing industry. How does it guard against stereotypical portrayals whilst achieving impact, particularly when what is offensive varies across the EU? Perhaps some kind of intervention is due in the more exploitative aspects of commercial gender stereotyping, but at what cost?
A survey recently conducted by ad agency TBWA that discovered that the explicit chatter on the Channel 4 series Sex in the City was the closest television came to conversation between young women.
Managing director John Mildenhall warns against the "sterilisation" of the portrayal of women in advertising.
Critics of Diamantopoulou say that we have sufficient respect for "human dignity" in the form of our existing watchdogs.
In the end, perhaps the best form of attack is a shift in public opinion, rather like Bernard Manning in Bombay. He might blame the cultural differences. The rest of us know that he bombed because his gags weren't funny.