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A Summer’s Eve Debate: Why ‘Offensive’ Ads Can Be Good

Can men effectively market to women? Can whites sell to people of color?

Sure. Yet, some recent ad campaigns make you wonder. The latest is for Summer’s Eve cleansing wash, and it’s definitely a fresh take on the “feminine products” category. Each of the three ads features a woman’s hand that is meant to be a talking… uh, vajayjay. Each comes in her own, off-the-shelf ethnic flavor. Well, maybe just watch the videos here. The best part might be the tag line, “Hail to the V.”

No matter how you feel about the campaign, it’s sparked a response. The ads unleashed a shower of criticism, not only for being sexist in some eyes, but for perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes. The kindest coverage I’ve seen so far was Stephen Colbert’s send-up in which he concoted satirical ads for a similar product for men. (I can’t name the fictitious product here, but the tagline’s “Hail to the D.” Enough said.)

The commercials launched shortly after the recent California Milk Processor Board ads created to market milk to women for symptoms of PMS. “Everything I Do Is Wrong” landed Milk in hot water by playing on the stereotype of an irrational premenstrual female. The flood of negative comments on the social Web was so intense that the CMPB threw in the towel on the campaign last week.

Yet, campaigns like these strike a nerve for some very healthy reasons. They reflect back a great deal about our own values and hangups.  The advertising creative establishment is overwhelmingly male and Caucasian. People of color in power positions are concentrated in a handful of agencies that specialize in marketing to minorities. It’s a frustrating, chicken-and-egg challenge; the industry’s greatest minds have pondered, discussed, and blogged this issue. (And it’s not just advertising. Mainstream public relations is also a white, albeit predominantly female, industry.)

But the industry is once again buzzing about how stupid it is that more women and ethnic minorities aren’t in decision-making creative positions. This isn’t an easily solved problem, but the discussion can’t be allowed to recede. So, for this reason, and maybe this reason alone, I will applaud the Summer’s Eve ads. Empowering? I’m not sure. Offensive? That depends on who’s watching. Provocative? Yes, on so many levels.

Referring to his agency’s celebrated work on behalf of the California Milk Processor Board, GS&P’s Jeff Goodby told The New York Times that a similar PMS-themed campaign had been launched in 2005, to a far more muted reaction. “It’s a different world,” he says, summing up both the problem and the progress.

As a PR person, I don’t believe either campaign is a naked play for exposure, although I might be naive. I think they’re a needed reminder of how much has changed, and a sign that we still have a long way to go.

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