One (among many) stereotypes Europeans have of Americans is that Americans tend to be prude, at least relative to European standards. I can’t say for sure how this generalizes, but I have to admit, when we first moved to Austria, I wondered how much our Puritan roots influence our culture as I found myself quietly shocked by the liberal use of nudity in advertisements here.
Sure, we all know sex sells, and American companies aren’t shy about wielding this very effective marketing tool. However, US ads tend to be a bit more subdued in that they don’t generally employ blatant nudity, and those products which do employ blatant nudity are restricted to covered sections of the magazine rack. I rather suspect it isn’t our Puritan heritage, but our heightened sensitivity to sexism and liability for discrimination and harassment that results in less public nudity.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with religion at all. For example, Austria is very Catholic. Most businesses aren’t allowed to be open on Sundays. Even so, prostitution is legal here and brothels are common. Nudity is generally far more acceptable – in advertising and at the local pools, beaches and saunas. The local newspaper often features a topless model-of-the-week.
But as with all sweeping generalities, there are exceptions, as noted by one Austrian I met who had road tripped across the US and happened to cruise through New Orleans during Mardi Gras: “I always thought Americans were so prude, but, um, I was wrong!” It’s also hard to make a generalization of Europeans when each country and culture possesses a range of different attitudes toward nudity.
I don’t know what constitutes the norm for nudity in advertising here, nor do I profess to understand all of the subtleties of Austrian norms. What I do know is that there is more public nudity here than in the US, and that statement applies to public ads. When I first moved here and saw some of the more risqué billboards, I would think something along the lines of Wow. That would never fly in the US. Now, I see them and just think Huh. There’s another one.
Which is roughly what I thought when I saw this Hirter billboard on a ride a few months ago:
I figured it wasn’t anything more or less than the norm, but I was wrong. In fact, Austrian feminists were so outraged by the ad that their ire made international news. Where previously I was quietly shocked by nude billboards, I now found myself quietly shocked by the extent of the ruckus. To someone who isn’t used to seeing nudity in mainstream advertising at all, it sure seemed that there was a whole lot in these parts, and what exactly made this ad so much worse than any of the others I had seen?
I still don’t know.
What I do know is that Hirter responded with a sense of humor:
(images from Hirter Bier)