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VisitPhilly city campaign sanctions street harassment

By May 31, 2012 5 Comments

As a city girl and proud former Philadelphian, I was deeply disturbed to learn that the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation’s (GPTMC) latest campaign includes citywide billboards that outwardly encourage street harassment.

Philadelphia Current Billboard: Straight-up-and-dirty BADvertising on Broad Street.

Unsolicited commentary in public spaces has always sparked a special brand of rage in me. Long before I identified as a feminist, I was furious at the audacity of people who presumed they had some implicit right to remark upon my body and appearance while I was en route to my place of employment, school, or even my home. I am a human; not an item others are entitled to assess, objectify, and publicly comment on. I felt silenced, small, and scared.

I took to mapping circuitous routes through the city that would bypass areas where I knew I would be subjected to scrutiny. How was it that in a city that boasted being the birthplace of freedom I was having my basic civil rights violated two steps from my front door on a regular basis?

Hollaback!, a non-profit, awe-inspiring initiative against street harassment seeks to empower citizens to essentially “hollaback” at objectifying commentary encouraging users to share their stories through their web site or iPhone app.

Street harassment-busting non-profit Hollaback!’s Philadelphia site alerted me to a recent advertisement from the masterminds at VisitPhilly.com that practically sanctions objectification. A billboard prominently featured on the iconic Broad Street in downtown Philly (and strategically displayed during the Broad Street Run) says: “Dear Walking this Way, I like the way you move it, move it”, while cheekily signing off “With Love, Philadelphia.”

If you could see me right now, you would observe plumes of steam shooting from my ears. I am so utterly disturbed that an overtly offensive message was approved and placed in a public sphere. Conspicuous catcalls, non-verbal noises, and reductive remarks may be sheathed in good intentions, but they socially sanction us to accept our bodies as products for consumption.

In an email to HollabackPhilly, Meryl Levitz, the President and CEO of GPTMC, weakly defended the ad, citing that it was meant to reference the song, “I like to Move It, Move It” as “sung in the children’s film, Madagascar 2” and that the collection of letters were meant to be pieces of a larger conversation, the “With Love” lines “meant to be catchy, playful, and topical.”

Do I even need to mention that this claim is rendered null and void on two obvious counts? First, they augmented “I like to move it, move it” inserting, “I like the way you move it, move it.” Second, anyone old enough to understand the maligned message is much more inclined to associate the song with the 90s House duo, Reel 2 Real, rather than DreamWorks’ Bronx brood. It misses the mark of being bold and brazen and ends up uninspired and embarrassingly offensive.

The 2010 Ostentatious Offender; Hello, misogony!

A 2010 billboard from the GPTMC shamelessly solicited “fellas” with: “The sun is out. So are the ladies.” The ad then urges the reader to get a front row “spot” dining al fresco with a web site for booking. Not only is the ad highly gendered, it is one of the most blatant forms of sexist and misogynistic advertising I have seen. Despite pleas for removal, the billboard remained, promoting objectification and voyeurism as a form of recreation.

Even more unsettling is that these ads aim to foster tourism in Philadelphia, a city with rich resources and national significance. These one-liners devalue its prominence and counteract its creative vitality.

HollabackPhilly has started a petition at Change.org to remove this ad. To date, the GPTMC has acknowledged the outrage and say they are “looking into it.” I shudder when I think of what message it conveys to our youth, the roles of men and women, gender identity, and the limiting narratives we are forced into. Surely there is a better advertising angle that is a true reflection of a city with so much heart and history.

We all deserve to exist in public spaces without harassment and to use our voices to speak up against perpetrators without fear of reprisal. This antiquated idea that ignoring unsolicited attention will lessen its influence is reflective of a larger problem. When we don’t speak up, we become complicit with a global power dynamic that attempts to silence women and other marginalized groups. We need to foster dialogues about how to effectively fight back against public harassment, hold companies accountable who contribute to the problem, and build communities that thrive on mutual respect and safety for all citizens.

Heather