Lowe & Partners/SMS
The Kaplan/Thaler Group
Wieden & Kennedy Portland, Ore.
There I was last week, squashed into a coach seat on a flight to Mexico City, where I was to speak at an ad conference sponsored by AMAP, a Mexican ad association. My seat was behind a woman traveling with her 12-month-old baby boy, who did not sleep during the entire five-hour trip. Not only didn't he sleep, he also wanted to wander the aisles doing that squealing toddler/pointing dance, which is so cute the first few times.
I was giving the mother a sympathetic look and about three hours into the trip, she turned to me and said, "Can I throw him out of the exit?" Instead, I volunteered to walk him back and forth for a while. As we took turns exchanging the little guy, she started telling me her life story. She married a Mexican man she met during her junior year abroad. He's trying to become an accountant, but they have a hard life, given that you can't buy anything on credit in Mexico, the land of giant debt. So they don't own a house or a car.
"Americans who complain don't have any idea what it's like to live in a place like this, where your garbage is never picked up," she sighed. Twice a year, she comes back to East Islip, Long Island, to visit and get her sister's kids' Gap hand-me-downs for the baby. But she had hope. "I invented a hat," she said, and she showed me a sample--a bandanna-cum-visor with room for an imprinted logo. She was hoping to parlay it into her ticket back to East Islip.
I elaborate this tale only to illustrate that when women bond, they tend to pour forth the whole story and exchange information quickly.
At the conference, I was speaking on the changing images of women and men in ads. But by this next-to-millennial point, even I, who love to endlessly analyze anything, am tired of the whole subject, the whole ghettoization of either gender, because we're all more complicated than that.
It made me realize that some of the most memorable--and arguably most successful--advertising in the U.S. in the last 10 years that targets women also divides female opinion.
For example, I really hate reverse macho--the idea that men can now get a taste of what women have been enduring. Take the award-winning Diet Coke ad with hunky Mr. Lucky, popping his top on his caterpillar.
I know it's still a crowd pleaser. But I squirm at the setup--positing secretary/ librarian types who are so empty, so desperate, that they schedule their day around the viewing of this alien creature across the street, as if Shamu the whale were being trucked in.
Here's the problem: Even though it's a reverse of cliches and expectations, in that the man is the sexually objectified one, the one with the lovely chest, he hasn't lost any power in the ogling. It is the women who come off as parched little ninnies, not attractive enough to get their own guys. Welcome to Ruth Buzzi revisited.
What rings true is the trend that shows women as openly, unapologetically sexual beings, which sounds healthy enough. That's opposed to the 1970s Enjoli/women's libber stripteaser who can "fry up the bacon, cook it in a pan and never let you forget you're a man."
But what really pains me are the Herbal Essence ads--the ones that make the pun on "organic" based on the fake-orgasm scene of the 10-year-old film When Harry Met Sally. The joke is copied down to the exact same payoff. In the movie, Rob Reiner's mother is sitting at an adjacent table at Katz's deli, the scene of Meg Ryan's howling faux performance. And after Meg's last oooh is done, Mom says to the waiter, "I'll have what she's having."
In one Herbal Essence spot, a sexy young woman goes into the bathroom of a plane and moans and groans so loudly while washing her hair that the whole plane hears. After she comes out, perfectly coiffed, an older female passenger asks the stewardess for the same shampoo.
I know this ad is selling tons of shampoo or there wouldn't be so many executions, but I don't think it's funny. The tender heart of the Harry movie was about men and women communicating--or not. And here, it's hair-wash onanism, a whole different thing. Keep it in the privacy of your own tub, please.
To pleasure oneself that loudly anywhere is plain creepy (men would be arrested), but to fake pleasure oneself is beyond embarrassing. Plus, she comes out with really-done, late-1970s-Miss-America- style hair. What's that about?
Then there's that other subspecies of ads--the revenge theme. Here, women get into full-tilt Thelma and Louise. These spots were especially popular during the John Bobbitt period of our culture--when women's power was so threatening, I guess, that it had to be alchemized into the emasculation of men. Why can't female power exist in the world without being linked to cutting off penises?
Millie Olsen, a creative director who heads her own agency in San Francisco called Amazon, gave a lecture at the same conference. She included a spot showing a woman destroying her husband's car at a golf course because she thought he was cheating. It turns out it wasn't his car.
This spot is better than Diet Coke or Herbal Essence, but again, it's the wasted energy of reacting. Sure, hostility is always at the base of comedy. But don't pass it off as girl power--it only polarizes the genders more. In my speech, I ended with the idea that the best advertising is not dependent on defining or exchanging roles or stereotypes. It's about taking a tiny snip of universal human emotion and magnifying it--so we all get a moment of knowingness.
The Nike ads I wrote about a few weeks ago do just that: They use male and female athletes interchangeably. Each sports star is equally obsessive and insanely competitive about training because that's what it takes--regardless of gender. For instance, Picabo Street is dying to get out of rehab, so she goes on a downhill quest in her wheelchair. It's funny because it's a visual story of determination. It's a natural thing to exchange stories, in life and in advertising.
And someday, I hope that woman sells her hat.