Women’s Work

Motorcycles careened from moving vans, an orgasmic lawyer frolicked in a courtroom and a deliriously happy pair of women sang the praises of spring-scented soap.

Those were just a few of the ad images praised and panned last week at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Awards, sponsored by the Advertisiing Women of New York. Judges rated about 1,000 TV and print ads for their depiction of women and creative excellence, giving 37 the distinction of Good, Bad or Ugly.

The Grand Good in TV went to a Nordstrom shoes.com ad from Fallon, Minneapolis. In it, a woman chucks the contents of her moving van so she can fulfill the tagline: “Make room for shoes.” Nordstromshoes.com’s corresponding print effort tied for the Grand Good print award with Citron Haligman Bedecarré, San Francisco, for a Women.com campaign that plays off pejorative terms for women.

For the second year in a row, the Grand Ugly went to The Kaplan Thaler Group in New York for Herbal Essence. The spot depicts a female lawyer getting a titillating shampoo in a courtroom. The print Grand Ugly went to an in-house Candie’s fragrance ad picturing She’s All That star Jodi Lyn O’Keefe perched atop a computer showing a rocket blasting off, while Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath sits at the keyboard.

The members of AWNY and the GBU chairs hope the show will act as a catalyst to the 500 advertising and marketing professionals in attendance, urging them to examine their own work. Talk to creatives about advertising’s portrayal of women and they readily respond that most of it is dreadful.

Point out that the majority of creative directors are men, and most say it doesn’t always take a woman to make effective and responsible advertising to, for or about women. So why the endless ads that tout a clean toilet bowl as nirvana or are just in bad taste?

Many suggest solutions that sound like Advertising 101: Know your audience, then create a simple, entertaining message based on a product truth.

It’s as if people forget what good advertising is when faced with speaking to a certain segment of the population, says John Hegarty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty and a judge of this year’s GBU. “[Creatives] feel they have to talk to women in a particular way. And it’s based on nothing but what other people have done. It’s as if precedent is the most important thing, not the character of the person you’re talking to.”

Consider two ads that earned a distinction at GBU. The Nordstromshoes.com spot Grand Good and a Jell-O ad from Young & Rubicam, New York, which earned a Bad award. It shows a girl who takes a Jell-O dessert to the new boy on the block while the voiceover explains that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Both play off stereotypes: women adore shoes and hope to impress men with their cooking.

Hegarty points out that advertisers often use stereotypes—it is inevitable in brief communications like ads—but to him the difference is in the denigration of women. “The Jell-O spot is positioning women as subservient, and that’s where it goes wrong for me,” he says. “Of course women make desserts, why shouldn’t they? There is a way of presenting it that puts women on equal footing with men.”

David Lubars, president and executive creative director of Fallon, explains the Nordstrom shoe stereotype works because obsession is a universal foible. “It’s the same way I look at CDs. For other guys, it’s golf or cigars,” he says. “It wasn’t about how good your legs look [in the shoes]. It shows respect.”

Jane Talcott, group creative director at Y&R and a GBU judge, says part of the challenge is simply selling clients on fresh ideas. “The packaged-goods mentality tests things to death,” she says. It makes good advertising to women “scarcer than hen’s teeth.”

Women are just as scarce in creative positions in advertising. They are hard to find, laments Lubars, adding that sometimes the all-male Nordstrom team turns to wives and girlfriends for perspective.

Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, adds, “Every once in a while, we have a boy’s club on Hallmark or McDonald’s. Sometimes you need a woman to say, ‘I would never do that.’ That’s true with all ads; it has to be real. It takes someone who can climb inside a woman’s head.”

Although Hegarty says creatives should understand whatever consumer segment they target, he points to one instance when he was creating a U.K. campaign for Sanpro tampons in the ’80s when he felt it was necessary to consult a woman. “It was a world I had just not known,” he says.

The campaign, which featured the line, “Call it what you like, a period’s a bloody nuisance,” was “some of the best advertising I’ve been involved in,” says Hegarty. “Of course, it offended some people, but it touched a lot of other people who thought, ‘Somebody understands, and now maybe they’ll make a product that alleviates the problem for me.’

“We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t end up producing things that appeal to everybody,” he adds. “Political correctness has value, but it is easily overreached and becomes its own censor.”

In the case of Nike’s recent “Horror” ad, NBC was the censor. In the spoof of a summer slasher movie, track star Suzy Hamilton outruns a man in a hockey mask wielding a chainsaw. “Why sport?” the super asks. “You’ll live longer.” Complaints about the reference to violence resulted in NBC’s pulling the spot.

Hal Curtis, Wieden + Kennedy creative director for Nike, says he was surprised the ad received such negative reaction. (Nike did earn a Good last week for its “Beautiful” spot, which pays tribute to a distinctive standard of beauty in the scars of dedicated athletes.)

“The spot is about blowing up a stereotype: women as victim,” says Curtis. “We used a film genre everyone knows the ending to. And we turned it upside down. In “Horror,” she is the victor.”

Cindy Gallop, president of BBH and a co-chair of GBU, says she loved the ad and thought it was appropriate for Nike. “Those who find it offensive are severely lacking in a sense of humor.”

With such widely polarized opinions surrounding one ad, it’s tempting to conclude the controversy breaks down to a matter of personal opinion. Women in advertising have come a long way. Why all the fuss?

As a guest speaker at the GBUs, Dr. JoAnn Deak, an educational consultant and author of How Girls Thrive, described current research that shows how environmental influences like advertising profoundly affect girls. She said that research is close to proving that advertisers and marketers influence girls’ self-image more than their teachers and parents. Deak called on advertisers to be careful with that responsibility.

Lubars says the industry will take its next big stride in talking to women when the work it produces actually reflects the array of female experiences. “A lot of women’s advertising is about cozy feelings. There’s more to women than that,” he says. “There needs to be more colors on the palette of emotions that women feel and think about.”