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This advert isn't sexist. Yeah right.

In a flashback to the 1970s, breasts and bikinis are again being used to sell everything from cars to hamburgers. Is feminism truly dead, or this time are the women on the billboards in on the joke too?

The invitation is for a top-drawer corporate social function - drinks while cruising on Auckland harbour. The man boards the boat and is greeted by several pretty young women in tight, skimpy outfits, handing out T-shirts.

"Ooh," says one, pressing close to him and stroking his arm firmly, "you would be an XL, wouldn't you?," before breaking into giggles.

XL sounds too big, he protests. "Oh no, you would be at least a large," says the girl, widening her eyes and squeezing his upper arm.

These are promo girls, the must-have marketing accessory seen at an increasing range of sporting events, alcohol promotions, and now as part of corporate hospitality.

They sell trayfuls of shot glasses in bar promotions, are paid to enter pub bikini contests, play hostess for law firms in corporate boxes and pose for pictures with happy male staff at Christmas functions.

"It used to be all around liquor, then cars, but now it's creeping out into everyday brands, it's more and more acceptable to use pretty girls to sell products," says Paulette Edser of VMA Model and Talent. This week, two of her models, replete in tans, bikini tops and hotpants, were stationed at Auckland University with a mechanical bull as part of promotions for Burger King.

Promo girls are the bikini-clad weathervanes for a new climate of sexual explicitness in advertising. In a bizarre cultural U-turn, we seem to be back in the 1970s, when blokes were men and women were there to smile and look available.

In Hamilton this month, a billboard above the Bendon shop featured the usual visual feast of a reclining woman in bra and undies. But more than usual was on offer. She was pulling at one corner of her briefs, with a catch-line reading, "feel free to poke around downstairs".

Motorola's current campaign features a barebreasted woman as a decorative backdrop to a cellphone. And in a Burger King television commercial, young women in bikinis bounce along on horseback on a beach, prompting media commentator John Drinnan to dub it "the most blatant example of using sex to sell burgers and fries in the 21st century".

At times, what is presumably supposed to be post- feminist irony gets downright stomach-churning. Local fashion house World has been selling pink baby T-shirts, presumably intended for baby girls, emblazoned with the logo "Future Porn Star".

Young women, far from sternly rising up to form feminist action groups to throw Burger King and the bikini girls off campus, appear to be themselves enthusiastic players in the slapperisation of New Zealand. In bars, managers have found that if they provide poles they don't even have to hire pole dancers, because female patrons will do it for free.

And yet, the same generation of young women who are happy to wear Playboy T-shirts are beating the boys at NCEA and university. All this is happening at a time when we are on to our second female prime minister and women are leading the Maori Party and the Greens.

Er, what's going on? Are we failing to recognise a new wave of damaging and oppressive sexual stereotyping? Or are these images harmless post- feminist nonsense, at a time when nothing can hold women back?

To find out, the Sunday Star-Times went to what should be the beating heart of right-on feminism - a women's rights officer at a university. And we found disarray.

"I see myself as a woman and as a feminist, am confused by these things," said Naivasha Moore, women's rights officer at Auckland University. "The women walking around in bikinis selling Burger King - I guess they're getting paid for that and if they're comfortable doing that..." She tails off.

She does wonder whether some women her age feel they must play the sex kitten, because all the images they see suggest that is what is expected of them. But she's not sure.

Auckland University senior lecturer in marketing Rick Starr says New Zealand is not unique. We are caught up in an intensification of sexual imagery sweeping the west. Pornography is available at the click of a mouse. Celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson are famous for sexual exploits which would once have been seen as shameful.

"Things that would virtually have resulted in an honour killing a decade ago, now just result in increasing people's celebrity," he says.

American writer Ariel Levy has dubbed the trend "raunch culture", arguing that soft-porn culture has invaded representations of women because of a mistaken belief that slutty behaviour can be a form of empowerment and self-expression.

In an environment such as this, the twin objections of feminism and moralistic concerns have become muted, leaving advertisers with a free hand. Only the most ludicrous or awful displays of women's bodies arouse complaints, such as a recent Auckland billboard for muesli featuring a pair of giant female breasts. The tagline was "need something real?"

The billboard was ruled unacceptable by the Advertising Standards Authority after office workers complained the giant breasts were ruining business meetings.

Ads like these, says Starr, capitalise on what is known as the "involuntary attention" phenomenon. Like a train wreck, there are some sights you cannot not look at.

"Pretty much anything involving bodies of either sex is going to have some involuntary attention because it's hard- wired in," says Starr.

Ads that grab attention are particularly effective for products that people don't much care about, called "low- interest" products, says Starr. For a "high-interest" product such as a computer, consumers will research their purchase, carefully weighing up competing products before making a decision.

But no one spends much energy deciding which burger or beer or muesli bar they will buy. For low-interest products such as these, advertisers have to attract attention and create a buzz by using colour, sound or imagery. Or bodies.

Even if society as a whole has become largely indifferent to ubiquitous sexualised imagery, some eminent psychologists say we should care, because children are being affected.

In a major report released last week, the American Psychological Association argued that raunch culture's influence is being felt in the youngest age groups, teaching girls as young as 12 to objectify themselves as sexual beings.

Girls "learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance", said the report.

The cultural influences are everywhere - from highly sexual music videos, to Bratz dolls dressed like hookers, to girl mags with their focus on boys and "crushes", to sexually exhibitionistic celebrities such as Britney Spears. In school playgrounds, eight-year-old girls can be heard singing The Pussycat Dolls' "Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me".

The result is that little girls and young women want revealing clothes and accessories that make them "sexy".

A focus on physical attractiveness by girls and young women isn't new. But there is evidence that it wasn't always the prime currency for social success.

The APA report cites a 1997 study by social historian Joan Brumberg examining the diaries of adolescent American girls over the past 100 years. Brumberg found that in earlier eras, girls were focusing more on improving their studies or becoming well-mannered. In the past 20 years, however, "girls almost exclusively described changing their bodies and enhancing their physical appearance as a focus of their self-improvement".

"The consequences of the sexualisation of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls' healthy development," says Dr Eileen Zurbriggen, chair of the APA Task Force on the sexualisation of girls. Possible outcomes include anxiety, emotional problems, eating disorders and low self-esteem.

Meanwhile, back in promo-girl world, Paulette Edser is busy screening 93 entries from women eager to enter the Miss MagWarehouse bikini contest, which will be fought out in pubs around the country.

Edser does worry a little about where the pervasive raunch culture may lead her daughter. But she sees no problem with her role in helping women pursue their God-given right to don scraps of clothing and parade in front of crowds of leering drinkers.

Edser says she has faith in men. They always reject the heavily made-up contestants "who have spent a fortune on their boobs". Instead, if a contestant is "naturally beautiful and she's got a good figure, and it's all her own, they go for the natural one every single time.

"I don't really think it is degrading for women because at the end of the day we've all got choices."

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