In Love With The Product

Magazine AdA foxy young thing with a fluffy pink collar sits astride a computer monitor with her legs spread. Mark McGrath of the band Sugar Ray sits in front of the monitor and looks devilishly into the camera. On the computer screen, a rocket takes off and shoots upward, directly toward the woman's crotch. Is this magazine ad promoting: a) a porn site b) computer monitors c) a women's fragrance?

If you guessed "c," you're right. The ad was for Candie's Inc., a women's shoe and fragrance company. It's also this year's winner of the "Grand Ugly" award for most offensive print ad given by the Advertising Women of New York (AWNY) this month.

You may have seen this ad before -- and maybe even thought it was cute, sexy and tongue-in-cheek.

But some advocates for women say that these kinds of images objectify women, and are dangerous because they promote unrealistic body images and risky behavior that force women to question their self-worth. "Advertising manipulates our fears and exacerbates our insecurities," said Joe Kelly, founder of Dads & Daughters, a watchdog organization that monitors media images of women. "I am so angry at what this culture gets away with doing to women and girls -- it's time for a lot more of us to start screaming about it," he said.

History of advertising ills

Advertising that uses negative images of women to sell a product have become somewhat of an epidemic, experts say. "Unfortunately, it's worse than ever before," said Jean Kilbourne, Ph.D, the author of several books, including "Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising." "There are ads everywhere˜in our schools, imprinted in the sand on our beaches," she said. "With technological advances, ads have just gotten more sophisticated and seductive."

Kilbourne also said that through advertising, women learn that everything depends on how they look and that the idealized images they see are literally impossible for a human woman to achieve. That's because, these days, almost every photo is digitally enhanced -- or airbrushed -- to make the model appear flawless.

"One of my favorite quotes is when Cindy Crawford said, 'I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford,'" Kilbourne said. "Computer imaging has gone way beyond airbrushing in making us feel inadequate."

You're never too cool to buy this

The ever-growing sophistication of ads includes the "anti-ad" approach, which is especially used to target media-savvy Gen I. "These companies will have campaigns like, 'You're way too sophisticated to be influenced by ads, you're really hip, so buy this,'" Kilbourne said. She described an ad by the clothing company F.C.U.K that ran print ads that said, "F.C.U.K advertising," for instance.
"Advertising manipulates our fears and exacerbates our insecurities."

Shock me, baby

Kilbourne also pointed out how violence has entered the mainstream in advertising, thanks to advertising agencies who need to look farther and farther to find shock value. An ad in The New York Times Magazine, she said, showed a silk tie bound to a bedpost and a woman's hand with a leather cuff on her wrist, reaching for a paddle on the bedside table. The copy read, "The right tie can make any evening memorable."

"Ads encourage us to trivialize relationships with people and to focus on relationships with products," she said, mentioning an ad for toilet paper that said, "Bath tissue is like marriage," and another that compared switching soft drinks to switching boyfriends.

Advertising around the clock

Agencies want to get their clients' message across to their desensitized, media-weary consumers faster and more memorably than ever before, said Catherine St. Jean, partner and chief operating officer of Judy Wald Partners, Inc., a creative recruitment agency for the advertising industry.

"Fifteen years ago, commercials were 60 seconds long -- now you've got 15-second commercials, [but] a lot more of them, since commercial breaks are longer than ever," St. Jean said. "People are bombarded [by ads] 24 hours a day," she continued. "It makes it harder for companies to stand out."

In the case of the Mark McGrath ad, Maria Dolgeta, public relations manager of Candie's, Inc., said that the ad has been getting positive responses from their target audience, 14 to 24 year-old women. "They think it's funny; they love [Mark McGrath]," she said. "They stop flipping through the magazine when they see him."

But not everyone's pleased. "We've gotten a handful of responses by mail by people who were offended by it," Dolgeta continued. "Mostly by girls' mothers who found it inappropriate."

The good, the bad and the ugly

There are organizations out there such as Dads & Daughters, that are keeping negative ads on their radars and punishing their creators publicly.

The Advertising Women of New York, a professional organization, looks for the best television and print ads to, for and about women that are creative as well as effective. The ones that don't satisfy those criteria end up competing for the "Grand Ugly" award or become runners up for the "bad" list.

Both lists are publicly announced.

St. Jean, who co-chaired the judging, said that the ads they considered bad -- like the Palmolive "Spring Sensations" TV ad, in which women dance around a kitchen with glee, so delighted are they to be cleaning with Palmolive dishsoap -- are often more silly than malicious.

And although the ads continue to be pervasive, she also said that some agencies are getting the picture. "Some agencies have evolved in how they talk to women and many clients have, too," she said. "Economically, talking down to the consumer and insulting their intelligence is not going to make them buy your product."

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