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Monday, August 8, 2011

Sexism in Advertising

There's a very interesting piece on Forbes.com about gender and ethics in advertising. This isn't a new topic, but it's worth revisiting for a few reasons - so no one gets complacent, for one (see also: "We have a Black president so racism is over") and also to examine how it looks as the face of advertising and consumerism changes.

Nicole Skibola cites those terrible "Got Milk?" ads that were meant to tout the health benefits of milk as a PMS cure, but instead (in my opinion) just touted the "women be crazy" stereotype. The ads showed men cowering in fear of the women in their lives and even included a website for men to "seek support," www.everythingidoiswrong.org.

Skibola also talks about GoDaddy, whose latest TV spot shows Danica Patrick and Jillian Michaels sauntering around a GoDaddy set, nude except for strategically placed logos and stilettos.

They're different kinds of sexist. The Got Milk? ads play up the idea that women are nuts and their menstrual cycles and emotions are to be feared. (Also, as a woman, I don't know any women who snap and start acting the fool during that time of the month - and if they do, a) the men AND women in their lives would call them on it, because menstruation is not an excuse for meanness, and b) they would seek some sort of medical treatment.) GoDaddy is more the standard "sex sells" trope, which has been around for as long as advertising has. Many brands want to be seen as "sexy;" the quickest way to do that is to show something sexy. What's immediately recognized as sexy? A young (or young-looking), conventionally attractive woman who's dressed provocatively. It's pretty lazy, actually, but it also works.

Overwhelmingly, women make the buying decisions for their households. And we don't want to feel like we're supporting a product that tells us we're only as valuable as our cleavage, or that we're emotional nutbars. The branding landscape is changing - it's more interactive, so people, for better or worse, feel more connected to brands. When done well, a brand can feel like an inclusive community for people of similar values and interests. When done poorly, a brand can be ... hurtful. It's not a question anymore of turning off the TV, or turning the page in a magazine when you see an ad you don't like - branding permeates more than these mediums. So when things go wrong, they go really, visibly wrong.

I don't know what the answer is - more market testing? More diversity in hiring? (I think this is the answer to most things, actually.) But I do know that as a consumer, I want to feel special and respected, and not like I'm not being taken seriously because of my gender.

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