Women activists and social workers have urged the Shanghai Women's Federation to denounce advertising that supposedly discriminate against women.
The ads that sparked complaints cover a wide range of products, including washing machines, food flavorings, cosmetics and tonics that claim to make women look younger and more beautiful, and even increase the size of their breasts.
However, some local women and advertising professionals insist there is nothing wrong with the ads. The complaints are misguided, they said.
One of the ads under fire is for a women's tonic called Taitai, which means wife in Mandarin. In the commercial, the husband tells his wife, "You are so beautiful that I will never get tired of looking at you."
Also criticized is an ad in which a husband buys a "Loving Wife" washing machine manufactured by Hangzhou Matsushita Home Appliance Co. Ltd. to show his deep love for his wife.
"His love means that the wife should wash all the clothes for the family," said one of the women who lodged com-plaints, Zhou Meizhen, a teacher at the Shanghai Women's Cadre Training School. She sent a three-page report on "sex-discrimination ads" to the federation.
In her report, Zhou stated that housewife and beauty are the two major themes in the ads. The women doing housework in the ads are presented as happy, relaxed and satisfied housewives whose priority is their family. The women also have the look of a wholesome beauty that men find desirable, she said.
"These ads are undoubtably telling you that housework is the only responsibility of women and that women can conquer the world by conquering men," Zhou said. "That obviously is sex discrimination."
Xu Anqi, a women's issues specialist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, added: "It's a traditional Chinese belief that women should attach themselves to men that has led to such ads. The ad companies are distorting and demeaning the image of women, while using it to make money."
But, said Grace Wu, a saleswoman for a trade company, "I don't think it's sex discrimination if women appear as housewives in ads. It's more acceptable for women to do housework than men."
However, women should be portrayed in a number of roles in ads - not just as housewives, Wu said.
Ad professionals said critics fail to understand that beauty is valued universally by women as well as men.
"Normally, we choose an ad model based on the product's target consumers," said Huang Zhen, who creates ads at Dentsu Shanghai Advertising. For example, the ad for Taitai tonic liquid, which was created by another firm, targets young female white-collar professionals who care about their appearance, Huang said.
"Therefore, an attractive ad model is suitable for an ad that involves beauty and health," Huang added.
Tif Wu, creative group head of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising's Shanghai office, said ads should reflect daily life in an objective way. "In fact, most mothers cook better than fathers," he said. "So how can we change ad models for seasoning products to men just to have gender equity?"
Shanghai Women's Federation spokeswoman Chen Jianjun said employment ads that only seek to hire men were banned as a result of a federation protest.
Given the new complaints of sex discrimination, the federation may begin monitoring ads and set up a complaint hot line, Chen said.
A similar ad monitoring system has long been in place at the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau.
But bureau officials said it's difficult to determine if an ad discriminates against women, although the Advertising Law bans sex discrimination in ads.
Wu Min, director of the bureau's ad supervision division, cited a company's ads for women's lingerie in Metro stations as an example of sex discrimination.
The ads - he declined to identify the ad agency or the firm that bought the ads - used a Chinese character meaning "play" in its message in place of another character with the same pronunciation. Thus, the meaning of the ad was changed from "perfect women" to "philander with women."
"This ad is obviously against the Advertising Law and the bureau will impose a fine of 600,000 yuan (US$72,000) on the ad company," the director said.