Why Sexism Doesn’t Sell: Demeaning Imagery in Marketing Is Never Harmless

An open letter to Mr. Hardee

Carl's Jr. is done with sexist ads. It took long enough.
Carl's Jr.

Dear Mr. Hardee,

Here is something I thought I’d never say—thank you for your most recent ad. For a long time now, we’ve been trying to tell you that your sexism doesn’t sell. That your ads are gross and demeaning and do not reflect well on your company or your leadership. That as women and men, we’re #NotBuyingIt. But with your new Carl’s Jr. campaign, you have shown us that you are finally starting to see the light.

So thank you for taking the first step toward remaking your brand. A step toward recognizing that women and non-bro men like to eat burgers too, and a step toward being a brand that we don’t have to shield our children from during commercial breaks. Really, thank you. It’s overdue. You have finally acknowledged that you had gone off the rails. Oh, and, thanks for helping that woman off the mechanical bull.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Now, your ads have been objectifying women for many, many years (15+ according to Adweek), so I do applaud you for starting to take the reins back.

But notice that I said “starting.” Because as it turns out, you have much more work to do.

So Mr. Hardee, please find below a few kind suggestions for this new path you’re on, from one feminist to another, because we’re all in this together, right? There are some things that I think you should think about.

First, perhaps your next commercial could start in an office that has already pulled your old advertisements down, so we don’t have to stare at a woman’s barely covered crotch. You’re not going to keep showing all that T&A to appease some imaginary male gaze, right? I would hate to have to call you a hypocrite.

Second, the women in the background who work for you seemed more than pleased with the brand shift. Maybe next time we can hear those women speak? Maybe there’s even some female leadership at Hardee’s/CKE that I’m not aware of? Maybe a woman who’s over 40 or doesn’t have the body of a model could say something? Crazy, right? Perhaps you think the workplace you depicted is normal since there are absolutely no women in CKE’s C-suite or on your corporate board—but I assure you, it’s not normal, nor should it be.

"Take the internal steps at your company to show consumers you actually care about women."

Thirdly, let’s retire the old “boys will be boys” trope. You say your son was just sewing his wild oats and got “distracted.” If by distracted you mean he suddenly became completely dismissive of women as anything other than sexual objects—then I guess you’ve invented a new definition for the word. But what I think you are actually saying is that the misogyny was harmless and was a mere distraction from how good your burgers are. I disagree.

Because the thing is, sexist advertising isn’t just bad for business, it’s bad for all of us—for our girls and our boys. In ways that aren’t funny. In ways that are, in fact, profoundly dangerous.

So unfortunately, your decades-long campaign that consistently demeaned and degraded women cannot be written off as just a mistake. Rather, your ads were indicative and representative of a larger culture in the United States whereby women are systematically objectified and demeaned: where one in five women are victims of domestic violence, where one in four women are victims of sexual assault, where women own vastly less wealth and earn vastly less money than men and where women are grossly underrepresented in positions of power and influence (ahem, look at your own leadership).

So, for my final words of advice, please own up to the dangerous messages you have been selling—and admit they were never harmless. Take the internal steps at your company to show consumers you actually care about women. And make an advertisement that shows women as more than secretaries and bull riders.

I do applaud you for taking the first step. But I insist that you take many, many more. And until then, I am still #NotBuyingIt.

Yours truly,

Jennifer Siebel Newsom

Jennifer Siebel Newsom (@jensiebelnewsom) is a filmmaker, advocate and founder and CEO of The Representation Project, which strives to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes.