Creative Focus: Feminine Critique

Ad women of NYC praise and raze fruit of the ad world’s labor.
Girls ruled and the lewd was booed at the Advertising Women of New York’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Awards. The big winners–women’s soccer players and Barbie–brought a girls-can-do-anything message to ads for Adidas, Gatorade and Mattel, while the big losers–lingerie models and the Doritos babe–were slammed for their gratuitous jiggle.
The ceremony, held Sept. 28 at the New York Hilton and hosted by Inside Edition anchor Deborah Norville, capped off AWNY’s third annual celebration/critique of images of women in advertising. And to think it all began with a single, albeit offensive, ad for the Wonderbra.
“It had three pairs of boobs neatly in a row, and it said ‘Vote for your choice,'” says AWNY member Margie Goldsmith, president of MG Productions. “I thought, here it took us 75 years to get the vote, and we’re reduced to this!” She took the ad to AWNY with the directive: “We’re women in advertising. We should do something about this.”
In its first year, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly awards were relatively timid. Few U.S. agencies were singled out, although McCabe & Co.’s potty-mouthed Rally’s ad did garner the Grand Ugly. “We covered up all the brand names in the ads,” Goldsmith says. “But the second year, the ads were shown full face and credit was given.” And American names were revealed. “We realized that if we’re going to change advertising, we’ve got to do it at home.”
The result is more than just mild public humiliation. (“The only person who was never embarrassed was Ed McCabe,” Goldsmith says.) One of last year’s losers went so far as to alter its ad to tone down a model’s cleavage. Another shop would only buy seats at this year’s luncheon after calling to make sure it wouldn’t be receiving any Uglies.
There’s power in publicity. As AWNY has gotten bolder, judges agree the ads have gotten better. “The news is good,” says Jane Talcott, executive vice president and creative director at Young & Rubicam, New York. “There are subtle shifts from three years ago, when women had to be [shown as] empowered. Now there’s a more intelligent approach. You don’t have to be one thing.”
Marisa Mayer, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and the panel’s youngest judge, concurs. “A lot of ads lately have been less stereotypical. Women are viewed as normal people: playing sports, involved in politics. There’s more variety.”
Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies’ Home Journal and More, even suggests that the awards may be obsolete. “We’ve all been sensitized,” she says, adding that she’d rather have awards criticizing “ads that help coarsen our culture Cynicism is a greater threat than sexism.”
Not so fast.
While the Wonderbra ad that started it all might be history, TBWA Singapore was criticized for a similar approach at this year’s show, referring to “thinking about women’s knockers all day” in a self-promotional ad featuring an image from a Wonderbra campaign. In fact, women’s breasts, butts and even bikini lines were prominent in most of the Ugly winners.
For example, in one raunchy ad for Kookai from BBDO Paris, a miniature man pushes a lawn mower along a woman’s nether region. (Another ad in the series, featuring tiny men gazing up at a woman from between her toes, won a Good, making the French fashion chain the only advertiser to be cheered and jeered in the same category.)
Even worse, an Ugly-winning ad for, a Web host that, incidentally, boasts its own calendar girls, features a close-up of a woman’s chest, her nipples covered by silver disks like the ones on scratch-off lottery tickets.
Most of the TV Uglies had, not coincidentally, bowed during the Super Bowl. BBDO New York’s commercial placing Ali Landry in a library for Smokey Red Barbecue Doritos was booed as much for its banality as its sexism.
One of the judging committee’s online correspondents, an 11-year-old girl from Davenport, Ill., commented, “What does a woman in a bikini have to do with selling Doritos?” (OK, so technically Landry’s just wearing a tight shirt. )
The spot from McCann-Erickson, Troy, Mich., showing security guard Dick’s cheesecake fantasies was also slammed–although his run-in with an elephant’s rear would undoubtedly have been offensive on a far different level had it ever reached the airwaves.
A trio of Victoria’s Secret spots earned Uglies (following a particularly pneumatic Tyra Banks shot, Norville cracked, “Are those real? I don’t think so”). This, despite the fact that several of the women interviewed by Leo Burnett’s LeoShe unit for a “keeping in touch with Middle America” video thought the models were beautiful and the ads sexy.
But dissenting voices were in the minority at this ceremony. “I thought the ads weren’t offensive at all,” says judge Blyth. “Being beautiful and sexy in a lingerie ad doesn’t offend anyone Sexy women selling cars–now that’s a problem.” She adds, “I feel sorry for little girls who don’t play soccer! What if a girl wants to sit around and read Anne of Green Gables all day?”
Still, the day’s biggest winner was the female athlete. Leagas Delaney in San Francisco took home the Grand Good for its “There from the start” campaign for Adidas.
In the ads, Women’s World Cup soccer players show their potential in childhood: a toddling Sun Wen heads a ball her dad gamely tosses to her; Shannon MacMillan’s powerful kick is evident even in utero; little Silke Rottenberg blocks the goal posts of her crib; and Kristine Lilly’s first steps take her sprinting across the back yard.
“Isn’t it nice to be able to laugh at something that’s positive instead of being hit over the head with it?” judge Goldsmith says of the Adidas campaign.
Creative director Harry Cocciolo says the spots were crafted specifically for the Women’s World Cup, which Adidas sponsored. The agency was charged with creating ads that addressed the event, the client’s history of supporting women’s soccer and the fact that Adidas sponsors a number of teams internationally.
“We wanted to focus on the players,” Cocciolo says. “Kristine Lilly has been playing soccer since she was four or five, so this is a fun take on that. We could just as easily have done the same ads with male athletes.” The commercials’ spirit of competition and athleticism is “independent of gender,” he adds. “We just treat them as athletes.”
The FCB Chicago creative team behind Gatorade’s “Michael vs. Mia” spot, which won a Grand Good for an individual commercial, expresses a similar sentiment.
“Our main goal was to do something that shows authentic competition,” says copywriter Danny Schuman. “The second thing was to make sure their personalities came through. It wasn’t created expressly for women. It was created for our whole Gatorade market.”
In the ad, Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm face off in basketball, soccer, track, tennis, fencing and karate to the tune of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” The concept developed after Gatorade’s marketing team charged the agency with putting Jordan and the then-unknown Hamm in an ad together.
Schuman and art director Joe Burke were sitting in Schuman’s office when the song popped into Schuman’s head. “I thought, ‘That’s perfect!'” he says. “Michael is the most competitive person in the world, and Mia is the most competitive person in the world.”
The competitors “clicked right off the bat,” Burke says. “There was a lot of playful ribbing. They came up with a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the script.” He also stresses that, although his three daughters love the commercial, it wasn’t designed as a message of female empowerment: “Competition, athleticism and sweat know no gender.”
Mattel’s “Be anything” campaign for Barbie, however, was clearly designed for a female audience. Art director Heather Niedergerke at Cole & Weber in Seattle helped develop the campaign with C&W’s sister Ogilvy & Mather offices in New York and Los Angeles.
The ads show girls talking about their aspirations. Taglines on the print ads include “Girls rule” and “I dream with my eyes open.” Mattel had charged the shops with making Barbie relevant to older girls (7-10-year-olds) and their moms, says Niedergerke. Indeed, the ads often don’t show the famous doll at all.
“We wanted to make it as real as possible so girls could look at it and say, ‘That’s me.'” Not to mention that the black-and-white footage makes the pink Barbie logo stand out:
“[Mattel] definitely has equity in the pink,” Niedergerke says.
C&W’s greatest challenge may have been turning the much maligned, impossibly proportioned doll into a feminist icon.
“There’s so much bad stuff that you hear about Barbie,” Niedergerke says. “We wanted to remind people of the positive aspect Barbie is a facilitator of girls’ dreams–even though she herself is not real.”
The unreal utilized as a vehicle for aspiration–that sounds familiar. Images of women in advertising will always try to create aspirations, hopefully for the better.