N.B. – I was requested by journalist Mikas Matsuzawa of CNN Philippines to give a statement on the no-smoking advertisement of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) which was criticized in social media for allegedly being sexist. The article titled “MMDA apologizes for `sexist’ ad” quotes part of my statement. Allow me to share the full text of my statement.
In my professional opinion, MMDA’s advocacy to “Respect the Sign” is commendable though the message gets lost in the ad that was used. This is where diction becomes important.
First of all, public vehicles and terminals cannot be totally “smoke-free” as public utility vehicles (PUVs) emit carbon monoxide (with the exception of a small number of e-vehicles plying NCR, of course). I think a more appropriate term instead of “smoke-free” is “no-smoking areas” (Let’s keep public vehicles and terminals no-smoking areas.)
Of course, diction is not just an issue of grammar and syntax. It is understandable for many people to react to the use of the phrase “stronger sex” because it reinforces the patriarchy that informs Philippine society. There is an implied acceptance that women are the “weaker” even if that may not be the intention of MMDA.
In terms of semiotics, the ad also falls into the trap of stereotyping men as the smokers while the women are typically the victims of second-hand smoke. We all know this is not the case as smokers and victims of second-hand smoke are both men and women.
I would like to think that social media now play a major role in engaging the community to articulate their concerns, even if a deeper and sharper analysis is needed to effect social change. While many online users are correct to point out the sexism, it appears that only a few are able to analyze other aspects of the ad. (I can even argue that the picture showing the woman touching a man’s mouth is problematic as there is no implication of intimacy on the part of the two. It is unthinkable for two strangers to touch each other that intimately, but I digress.)
I think it is not enough for the MMDA to take down the ad. It is incumbent upon the agency to publicly apologize and self-criticize, pointing out the weaknesses in the advertisement and promising to do better next time.