Madison Avenue Stumbles on the Red Carpet

It’s no secret the movie business is in steep decline. Ticket sales are anemic, theaters are bankrupt and audiences are content to idle at home waiting for the DVD to arrive in the mail. On Sunday night, Hollywood decided to fight back as only it knows how. Hugh Jackman glistened in a gorgeous production designed by David Rockwell and an array of creative behemoths on a joint mission to revive the global audience of ardent female fans with a heaping helping of glamour pie.
 
As if it were the last chance to resuscitate the patient, Hollywood gave it its all. Every detail was designed to seduce: an intimate stage, mood lighting, heartfelt tributes to nominees, jubilant song-and-dance numbers and the warmth of a full orchestra. If that wasn’t enough, Queen Latifa romanced viewers with a sentimental standard.

As for the advertising, it was phoned in. (Related: “Lippert Critiques the Oscar Spots.”)

The expected overwhelmingly female audience was set to see a live event — which makes the dreaded DVR irrelevant. Known in the industry as the “Super Bowl for Women,” the Oscars were once a showcase for advertising at its best. Unlike the hackneyed humor that punctuates Super Bowl advertising, the Oscars were always a showplace to debut stylish, classy ads that would appeal to women buyers.

But that was then.

Unlike the stubborn divas of Hollywood, our industry has rolled over and accepted its fate. We once prided ourselves on big ideas. Now, it seems we’d just as soon sell our smaller ones at half the price — as if women will buy anything on sale.

Admittedly, advertising was never in the habit of respecting women. David Ogilvy himself once chided, “The consumer’s not a moron, she’s your wife.” Forty years later, media has fragmented and women have become the most important consumer segment, influencing more than 80 percent of all purchases. Logically, one could expect a night at the Oscars to present a unique opportunity to reach and engage a concentrated audience of women with wit and grace.

For the women watching, the majority of ads on the Oscars were freshly nuked leftovers from the Super Bowl. Sprint replayed its mostly male delivery people running the world. Hyundai’s earnest offer to make the car payment had no women in sight. But the biggest evangelist for the new austerity of play-it-again ideas was Diet Coke, which recycled its tagline from a Super Bowl in the Reagan era.

Aren’t women worth more than that?

A few advertisers rolled out new campaigns ostensibly meant to attract women — who, by the way, are still in control of the family’s spending, for richer or for poorer.

JC Penney paid up for the big sponsorship, running at least a half-dozen ads throughout the broadcast. Problem was, it may as well have run the same commercial. With no central idea, the campaign is loosely constructed from funky songs and gleefully posing women. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and women are savvier than that.

One newly launched brand took a benevolent approach with a consumer-generated ad directed by Helen Hunt. The Inspiration Café is one woman’s laudable concept for feeding the homeless in Chicago. But it’s not clear what a fine charitable organization has to do with some sort of snack food called TrueNorth, and why women should buy it for their families. Anyone?

This is not to say all the ads were half-hearted attempts to engage women. American Express appealed to the female sentiment with a beautiful spot composed of a series of short biographies of card members. Storytelling always appeals to women, and I’d expect this spot to resonate with the female audience just as many other AmEx ads have in the recent past.

The Audi ads were quite provocative, too. Built on the concept of “identity theft,” one depicted a woman lost and alone in a parking garage full of identical SUVs. The tension was as palpable as Hitchcock, or at the very least that Seinfeld episode where they can’t remember where they parked.

Appropriately, the night’s most inspiring message was delivered by a woman.

Penelope Cruz accepted her Oscar by saying, “Art in any form has been and will always be our universal language.” Clearly, creating clever advertising messages for women is an art long lost.

When the four-hour broadcast drew to a close, viewers were reminded in no uncertain terms that Hollywood would forever try to keep its promise to churn out entertainment designed to please the audience, male or female, hit or miss.

Madison Avenue’s commitment, by contrast, remains in question.

Kristi Faulkner is principal and ecd at Womenkind. She can be reached at kristi@womenkindnetwork.com.

Previously by Kristi Faulkner: “40 Million Women Scorned.”