Are you outraged by openly sexist material in the media? Are you shocked by sexist or degrading advertising that violates the integrity of women or men?
There is always a way to report it!
It seems that consumers of all genders are more against overtly sexist messages; however, advertising continues to portray women and men in stereotypical roles. This is perhaps even more pernicious now, as it is more difficult to identify. Be aware that it is possible to file a complaint to combat the proliferation of sexist images and gender stereotypes.
These images are representative of our world, so being able to analyze them allows us to better understand our society, and especially to see behind the interpretation of those men and women who create the images.
If gender-based stereotypes in sexist advertising has not evolved much, the use of digital technology has changed, making it more accessible to file a complaint.
At the request of the Secrétariat à la condition féminine du Québec, we have updated our Companion Guide to filing a complaint agains sexist and sexual images and messages in the media to explain the procedures to follow.
How to recognize sexist messages?
- The environment in which the women are depicted
- The activities they are engaged in
- The clothes they are wearing
- The way their bodies are portrayed
Be wary of messages containing
- A unique standard of beauty
- Sexualized women
- Gender-based stereotyping
- The use of feminism for marketing purpose (femvertising)
How do I file a complaint against a sexist or sexual advertisement or message?
Filing a complaint can help change behaviour! Make sure you follow the correct procedures by referring to the Companion Guide before submitting your complaint.
Identify the nature of the message
First, it is important to determine whether the offending content was broadcast as part of an advertisement or a non-commercial message.
For a non-commercial message heard during a radio or television broadcast contact the concerned media outlet directly. See Scenario 1.
If it is a commercial advertisement, regardless of the medium, you must contact Ad Standards. See Scenario 2.
Scenario 1 – I am shocked by a non-commercial message broadcast on the radio or on television
A. Contact the broadcaster
Send a letter or an email to the broadcaster describing your concerns: list the facts and highlight the terms used. This is how many complaints are resolved.
For a list of elements to include in your message, refer to the Companion Guide (p.11).
Act quickly! You must send your complaint to the institutions in the three weeks following the broadcasting.
Are you not satisfied with the broadcaster’s response or is is taking too much time? Proceed to step B.
B. Contact the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC)
This is a voluntary self-regulating organization created by private Canadian broadcasters to deal with complaints by listeners and viewers regarding broadcasts that they have heard or seen on one of the participating stations. The latter constitutes the majority of Canadian private sector radio and television stations.
In what cases should a complaint be filed?
When a television or radio show includes content that:
- promotes hate or violence;
- negatively represents or degrades a gender or social group;
- conveys stereotyping;
- stigmatizes and victimizes a social group;
- derides myths, traditions or practices of a specific group;
- broadcasts discriminatory content;
- exploits the image of women or men;
- uses inappropriate language or terminology.
To help you prepare your complaint, you can refer to excerpts from previous decisions in the Companion Guide (p.12).
The importance of context for categorizing a complaint
With regard to Clause 10 of the Code on fair representation regarding contextual factors, in certain cases, the CBSC will not necessarily identify something as an offence. It’s important to document the arguments submitted in support of a complaint.
The relevant provisions of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards can be found in Appendix 1 of the Companion Guide (p.22).
How do I submit a complaint to the CBSC?
- By mail: P.O. Box 3265 Station D, Ottawa ON K1P 6H8
- By fax: 613 233-4826
- By phone: 613 233-4607 | By phone, toll/free: 1-866-696-4718
Are you not satisfied with the CBSC’s response? Proceed to step C.
C. Contact the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
The CRTC is an administrative tribunal that regulates and supervises broadcasting and telecommunications in the public interest. Contact the CRTC as a last resort. Address this organization when all other avenues have failed.
When should I file a complaint?
When the media violates broadcasting and telecommunications laws, policies or regulations, or licence conditions.
You must submit a complaint regarding a program within four weeks following its broadcasting.
How do I submit a complaint to the CRTC?
- By mail: Secretary General, CRTC, Ottawa ON K1A 0N2
- By fax: 819 994-0218
- By phone: 1-877-249-2782
There is no online complaint form. All complaints pertaining to broadcasts must be submitted in writing.
If you submit a complaint over the phone, you must also send in written version.
Scenario 2 – I am shocked by commercial content
Contact Ad Standards
The relevant organization is Ad Standards. It receives all complaints, regardless of the supporting media. Your complaint must relate to a recent ad, that you saw less than three months ago, in order to be easily identified by the Ad Standards.
This Code applies to advertising for products and services that appear in any type of media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines, billboards, online, brochures, etc.). It does not apply to foreign media.
Ad Standards accepts complaints submitted by the Online Complaint Submission Form or by mail. Explain the reason or basis for your complaint, as well as where the provisions under the Code apply.
You will find the applicable provisions of The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards in Appendix 2 of the Companion Guide (p.25).
In order to determine whether or not an advertisement is sexist, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the advertisement represent women and men in positions of authority in a manner that is egalitarian?
- Are women and men shown as having the same power as individual decision-makers when it comes to purchases, including more costly items?
- Does the advertisement refrain from the inappropriate use of sexuality or the exploitation thereof?
- Does the advertisement portray men in a dominant or violent role vis-a-vis women?
- Does the advertisement portray women and men in a full spectrum of diverse, nonstereotyped occupations? (For example, not just women are shown in advertisements for laundry detergent, and not just men are shown purchasing cars.)
- Does the advertisement use language that portrays women in a negative manner or is offensive towards and excludes women?
Identify the type of media in which the advertisement appears in order to properly prepare your complaint!
For print advertisements: identify the name and date of the publication(s) in which you saw the advertisement(s) and include a copy of the advertisement(s).
For out-of-home advertisements, such as outdoor, transit or similar advertisements: identify the date on and exact location at which you saw the advertisement.
For broadcast advertisements: identify the station, time and date on/at which you saw/heard the commercial and provide a brief description of the commercial.
For cinema advertisements: identify the title of the movie, the date of viewing, and the name and location of the movie theatre at which you saw the advertisement and provide a brief description of the advertisement.
For Internet advertisements: identify the date of viewing, website, and include a print-out of the advertisement and other applicable web pages (if any).
Refer to the Companion Guide (p.15) for a list of information that must be included in your complaint.
How do I submit a complaint with Ad Standards?
- By mail : 33 Bloor St. East, Suite 303, Toronto, ON, M4W 3H1
Still finding limitations to file your complaint?
Don’t give up! You can still:
Contact the company directly (in case of a commercial content)
Share your complaint on social media to challenge the brands
Send a letter to the media
Filing a successful complaint
What to do
Act as quickly as possible!
The CBSC and the CRTC make their decision on the basis of an audio or video recording. Radio and television stations are under no obligation to keep audio or video files for more than four weeks following the broadcast. It is therefore important to act quickly, particularly for programs or advertisements.
Use great precision when submitting your complaint
Identify the terms used in the radio or television broadcast or in the advertisement. Focus on the facts: it is better to define your concerns. It is essential to demonstrate which scenes or statements are degrading, offensive, insulting, sexist or discriminating towards certain social groups (regarding their identity and their role in society).
Document your complaint well
If possible, check the CBSC site to view the list of panel decisions already made.
What not to do
The challenge is to effectively show your outrage and to put forth an argument that does not include:
- Interpretations, such as: “This movie is stupid.”
- Opinions that exhibit personal subjectivity, such as: “I don’t like this advertisement, it’s in poor taste and disgusting.”
- Value-based judgements, such as: “I’m shocked, this is unacceptable.”
- Violent statements or generalizations
If, for example, you are targeting a program, avoid criticizing other things, such as society in general, or media that promotes a poor image of certain social groups.
It is not about showing indignation in response to sex scenes that are not discriminatory or exploitive.
You cannot file a complaint about an advertisement that is no longer on display or being broadcast.
Be sure to not submit a complaint about an advertisement that does not fall under the mandate of the Ad Standards, namely: The Code does not apply to: packaging, wrappers and labels; political and election advertising; foreign media.
What can I do if my complaint is not receivable through the official process?
Do not lose your hope, there are always solutions. First you can try to contact directly the company that made the ads to talk about your concern.
- For sexist advertisements promoting alcoholic beverages, contact the Conseil d’éthique de l’industrie québécoise des boissons alcooliques (Ethics Council of the Alcoholic Beverage Industry in Quebec), Éduc’Alcool. Online complaint form.
- If the advertisement targets children under the age of 13, you can submit a complaint to the Office de la protection du consommateur (Quebec Office of Consumer Protection). More information on the complaint process.
- If your concerns pertain to a sign or billboard in a public space, you can also contact your municipality or local administrative offices.
- For advertisements or movie trailers broadcast before a children’s movie, you can also submit a complaint to the cinema management.
- For advertisements found in a school setting (for products, magazines, etc.), send a letter to the school’s administration, calling for support from other parents. If the situation does not change, send a copy to the school board.
Let’s be vigilant! Filing a complaint is taking action!
Even beyond the process of submitting a complaint, we have to learn to train our critical senses. Are we asking the right questions? Who are the people behind these images? What is the message they are trying to convey, consciously or not? Let’s remember that in advertising, brands mainly want to convince us to buy their products.
Now that you know how to proceed, the ball is in your court.