Women Judge the Most Sexist Advertising Campaigns in 2012

On Tuesday at the Knesset the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) announced the winners of its annual sexist Israeli advertising booby prizes. First place went to the Israeli lingerie and sleepwear manufacturer Gibor. The four runner ups were campaigns run by Unilever (AXE Excite deodorant), Tempo (Goldstar Beer), Do It Kitchens, and Proportzia.

At the end of February WIZO announced a list of the ten most sexist advertising campaigns in 2011 published at the end of February. The winner and four runner ups were selected from this list by a panel of judges drawn from the media, academia, and activists made the selections. It included two judges from WIZO, two female journalists, two judges from the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI), and Dr. Roni Halpern, a feminist critic of literature and film who runs the Program of Gender Studies at Beit Berel college.

Gibor’s first place campaign encouraged women to upload pictures of themselves in bras in hopes of having their picture chosen as the “hottest” bra picture. Gibor was using the pictures to increase the “Like”count on its FIX brand Facebook page. Each “like” allows FIX to send posts advertising its products into the Facebook user’s news stream, so essentially they were using bra pictures donated by women to purchase advertising exposure.

According to HaAretz, WIZO disliked the advertising campaign because it “crossed a red line in objectifying women’s bodies and presenting them as sexual objects.”. The problem with the campaign wasn’t that it asked people to upload pictures of themselves in bras. They are after all a bra company. Rather it was their single minded focus on sex. There are many reasons women wear bras. Sex appeal is certainly one, but personal comfort and the desire for a aesthetic line to the body are also reasons. If the campaign really was about women’s needs as regards bras, then why not have pictures compete for “most relaxed and comfortable in a bra”, “cleanest lines in a bra”, “most athletic in a bra” (to promote sports bras) and so on?

On the other hand the reason for singling out some sexually oriented campaigns not clear. For example, a L’Oreal commercial advertises how sexy a makeup will make a woman feel by featuring a steamy Jennifer Lopez cooling herself with an ice cube running over her skin. The advertisement is without a doubt sexy, but how does it cross the line into “sexist”?

In the last several years there is a school of feminist thought, sex positive feminism, that argues that being and feeling sexy in itself is not sexism. Rather sexism is expressed in the way society channels female sexuality away from women’s self-esteem and towards male desire. The L”Oreal advertisement seems very much in the school of sex positive feminism. There are no men oogling women in the advertisement and no verbal pitches to look good for one’s man. The sense one has from the advertisement is that Lopez is feeling good about herself as a sexy woman, not simply being sexy to please male eyes.

The focus on sex in Gibor’s advertisement and L’Oreal’s can’t really be compared. Granted, women wear make-up for reasons other than feeling sexy. However, a 20 second TV ad needs to focus on one particular selling point. It isn’t fair to complain about the other reasons for makeup it missed. Gibor’s bra campaign was vulnerable to criticism because it operated under different constraint. It played out over time and multiple webpages. It would have lost nothing by including other categories, and it could probably have increased its appeal and its market understanding by considering other reasons for bra wearing.

Several in the top ten play on negative stereotypes of women. One features women who can’t handle the outdoors, another annoying mother in laws. Another makes fun of women’s bathroom habits, phone habits, clothing choices and just about anything else in a bid to boost masculine self esteem.

These campaigns raise some important questions about stereotypes: are all portrayals of gender stereotypes sexist? Where is the line between poking fun at stereotypes and foibles and buying into them? Between using humor to manage or create tolerance ambivalent feelings in complex relationships and using humor to ridicule and degrade others?

For example, Sano’s advertisement featuring an overbearing mother in law is clearly exaggerated and humorous: this mother-in-law thinks she even owns the grandchildren. It certainly doesn’t portray all mother-in-laws. On the other hand, the stereotypes of the overbearing mother-in-law and frustrated daughter-in-law exist at least in part because parents and married children often struggle to find the right balance between caring and intrusion. Humor is a classic way we work through ambivalent feels.

Perhaps the problem with Sano’s advertisement isn’t the stereotypes it portrays, but rather the lack of advertisements showing successful in-law relationships or the conflict from the mother-in-laws point of view? Where is the advertisement of the mother-in-law who wants to help her daughter-in-law out, hesitates, and then is thanked when she actually speaks up? From new mother child care to mid-life breast exams, that scenario exists as much, if not more, than the overbearing mother-in-law.

WIZO is recommending that people boycott the companies with the worst advertisements. Yet here too requires some reflection. Although the final decision on a campaigns always rests with the company owning the product, each advertising campaign typically has many players. Not all of them are under the same management: the company selling the product, a creative team, and the team responsible for pushing the campaign out into local media.

One has to make persuasive arguments to all players to solve the problem of sexist advertising. Influence between the company and other players is often by-directional. Companies community goals for their brand image and knowledge of their customers. Designers and promotion companies often provide advice about the overall market and what kinds of campaigns they think will sell. Sexism can come in from either side of the discussion.

One company designed two of the campaigns in the top ten, Bauman Ber Rivnay. Their two campaigns were:

  • Gibor , Israeli clothing manufacturer. First Place. To get more likes for its Fix (פיקס) brand Facebook page. Gibor Sabrina placed advertisements in Israeli news papers encouraging people to visit the campaign Facebook page and upload pictures of themselves in bras. To participate you had to “like” the company Facebook page. At the end of the campaign they planned to name the fifty “hottest” pictures.
  • IsraCard, Israeli credit card company. Isracard ran an advertizing campaign that featured British fashion makeover gurus Trinny and Susannah telling a woman that she wanted to go shopping not camping. Trinny and Susannah are formidable business women but here they are depicted as whinny woman who can’t handle hiking. Commercial on YouTube.

The remaining eight campaigns were promoted and designed by a variety of companies:

  • Tempo, Israeli food and beverage company. Runner up. To promote their Goldstar beer brand, Tempo ran an advertising campign with the slogan “Thank God you’re a man” (תגיד תודה שאתה גבר). The campaign included a series of 10 second spot and posters. Each short video and poster featured a different cameo of stereotypical women’s behavior. (video).  The posters played on the notion that men are simple and women are entirely too complex using simple flow charts for men and complex flow charts for women.  In one, stereotyped male and female bathroom habits after drinking are portrayed (photo). Another showed a man making a simple choice of beer, while the woman’s flow chart included a broad tree of choices for both drinks and clothes (photo).  The one displayed below shows men thanking God because they only want sex from a woman.   At the end of each video or the bottom of each poster was the slogan, “Thank God you’re a man”. Ad agency: McCann Erikson.
  • Proportzia (פרופורציה), a chain of cosmetic surgery and treatment centers across Israel. Runner up. They ran a campaign promoting breast enlargement surgery featuring a woman who feels she can’t find any good clothes because her breasts aren’t big enough. Ad agency: Aroeti Berman GPS. Below is a sample radio spot for the campaign:
  • Unilever, international consumer goods company. Runner up. To promote their AXE brand‘s Excite deoderant, Unilever ran an international advertising campaign that depicts women as fallen angels who will give up their halos for a man wearing AXE deoderant with the slogan “Even angels fall”. In Hebrew the slogan was changed to “Even good girls fall” (אפילו הילדות הטובות ייפלו) McCann Erikson promoted the campaign in Israel, but the creative work was done by the Turkish company, Rabarba.
  • Do It kitchens (דו איט מטבחים). Runner up. Do it Kitches ran an advertizing campaign featuring a woman sitting in a martini glass. (Ad agency: Elakim Harman-Nahardea)
  • Sano, Israeli cleaning product company.  In 2011 they ran an advertisement for  Javel bleach where  a mother-in-law criticizes her daughter-in-law’s housecleaning and plant care. At they end they laugh together over a cup of coffee while the daughter in law blurts out that she used to think her mother in law is a monster. Ad agency (Drori-Shalomi – BBDO).
  • L’Oreal: An steamy ad campaign for their glam shine 6 product line. It features a sultry Jennifer Lopez cooling herself on a hot day by running an ice cube over her face and skin. Ad agency: Gitan – BBDO
  • Louis Vuitton: Bags showing a model on a car. Ad agency: EURO in Israel.
  • Aphrodite Fashion, an Israeli swimsuit and lingerie company: They ran a campaign with the slogan “You’ll Get the Diamonds from Your Husband in Two Weeks” (את היהלומים תקבלי מבעלך תוך שבועיים). Ad Agency: Fox Goren Giladi.
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