A battlegrounds for both progressive social justice and traditional morality, Russia sometimes struggles to produce advertising that does not offend. Officials in Arkhangelsk have zeroed in on the latest controversy, filing administrative charges against an advertisement for new apartment complexes that mocks the supposed psychological complexes of women with smaller chests. While ostensibly defending women from sexist marketing, however, Russia’s antitrust regulators acted on recommendations that small breasts constitute a “physical disability.” The case isn’t an isolated incident, Meduza learned, and sexism in the Russian media has actually inspired a Telegram channel with more than 12,800 subscribers devoted entirely to calling out the worst examples.
On August 21, 2018, a regulatory commission in Arkhangelsk operated by Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service ruled that a local construction company broke the law when it ran an advertisement mocking women with smaller chests. “We’ve got small prices and a lot of complexes!” read the billboard for new apartments, showing a photograph of a surprised-looking woman measuring her own bust. For the sexist stunt, Akvilon Invest faces a fine as high as 500,000 rubles ($7,410).
Thanks to Russia’s advertising regulations’ statute of limitations, the construction company won’t face administrative charges over another sexist billboard from July 2017 that featured a topless woman and the slogan: “A furnished apartment for just 9,000 rubles a month — cheaper than renting.” (The meaning of the word “rent” in this phrase hints at “renting a woman” and “removing” the shirt dangling from her finger in the ad.)
While many Russian progressives likely welcome the decision to penalize a company for body-shaming women, the expert council’s recommendations that informed the ruling leave something to be desired. “The advertisement in question highlights physical disabilities in women (small breasts),” the Federal Antimonopoly Service’s crack team concluded. In other words, the agency’s advisory council inadvertently endorsed the sexist subtext of the ad it agrees is offensive and illegal.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Federal Antimonopoly Service staff don’t even suspect that there’s anything wrong or offensive to women about how they handled this. Probably, the person who wrote this thinks it’s perfectly obvious that a small chest is a physical disability,” wrote Nastya Krasilnikova on August 27 in her Telegram channel, The Robber's Daughter. “This story tells us one simple thing about Russia,” she told Meduza, “sexism is part of the culture.”
A deputy chief editor at the entertainment and lifestyle website Afisha, Krasilnikova says working in the media nurtured her anger about sexism in Russian journalism and advertising. “At some point, I started paying attention to how many sexist pieces are published every day in Russian glossy magazines, whose entire audience is women,” she explained. “This dissonance shocked me — it still shocks me. This is ostensibly media for women, but the texts in these publications demean these same women.”
A few years ago, Krasilnikova found herself so enraged by sexism in the media that she started blogging on Telegram, calling out the most egregious examples. In May, after sharing Akvilon Invest’s “complexes” billboard, she launched the hashtag #музейсексизма (Museum of Sexism), soliciting readers for displays of sexism in the Russian media. Every week, she shares summaries of what her more than 12,800 subscribers have submitted.
“My audience is very diverse,” Krasilnikova told Meduza. “These are people who live in different cities across Russia and in different countries. I used to think that it was mainly women reading me, but actually I often hear from men.”
On a few occasions, Krasilnikova says her blogging has even prompted some revisions from editors. On May 18, she shared a hyperlink to a story published on Glamour’s Russian website. Written by a Ksenia Ulyanova (a “psychologist, immersive trainer, author of women’s courses,” and — it turns out — the owner of a now defunct chain of Italian furniture resellers), the article was originally titled “How to Force a Man to Earn More Money.” Hours after Krasilnikova’s post on Telegram, the magazine softened the title to “How to Motivate a Man to Earn More Money.” “I’m glad that you’re reading me,” Krasilnikova wrote afterwards, pointing out that the article still contains two typos.
Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service is no stranger to sexist advertising that humiliates women. According to the BBC’s Russian-language service, in 2015, regulators in the Sverdlovsk region fined a telecommunications company for promoting its ample 4G data service with an image of a particularly robust bosom. The advertisement “formed a consumerist attitude toward women and women’s bodies,” agency experts determined.
Regulators’ decisions aren’t always so enlightened, however. In late 2016, the Antimonopoly Service threatened to fine a condom manufacturer 500,000 rubles for an “obscene” billboard that promoted safe sex with the slogan, “Take one and get busy!” alongside crude illustrations showing stick figures engaged in various acts of coitus. Three years earlier, Russian officials decided not to take action against a series of ads by a car insurance company that featured women of different ethnicities beside suggestive slogans like “Did you buy ‘Korean’? Insure her to the max!” and “‘Czechs’ love a generous package.” Regulators did nothing because the imagery wasn’t overtly sexual and the slogans used quotation marks.
Despite these cases, Krasilnikova says she thinks the situation in the Russian media is improving. “Generally, I like how many people aren’t indifferent about this issue,” she told Meduza. “Readers often write me and say they started noticing sexism all around them, after reading my channel.”