We’re More Than Mermaids and Murderers

The New England Patriots won the Superbowl (again!) in the lowest scoring game in Superbowl history.  I don’t know if it was a good game because the NFL is racist and I can’t fuck with that, but I still enjoyed the other big game–Superbowl ads! For decades now the Superbowl has hosted some of the most expensive TV ad time; this year costS ran at 5 million for a 30-second spot.  That means Cardi B has to make 4,201,681 Pepsis skruuuttt off the shelves to pay for ad time–and that doesn’t even include paying the celebrity endorsers or the manicurist who did that to Cardi’s nails.

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There’s no room here for boring old My Pillow ads or long pharma lists of side effects.  Instead, advertisers bring their A game to the big game.   Critics Monday morning quarterbacking the ads this year said the ads, on the whole, failed to inspire much beyond the same yawn the game did but buried in the boring ads is a glimmer of America’s shifting gender landscape.

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Taken together, the ads of the Superbowl serve as a snapshot of mainstream American culture, a night when Madison Ave translates the life of the Friday Night lights crowd and sells it back to them with the celebrities du jour.  The tone of the ads is an echo of the mood of the nation, and the best ads push our imagination towards our brighter future. For much of the Superbowl’s 52-year history, the ads revolved around the man’s world–razor ads and beer ads full of “manly men’, women draped across their shoulders like scarves, mere accessories, or crave-worthy objects.  As times changed, ads gave a wink and nod to the ladies who were expected to be at SuperBowl parties, but more interested in the snacks than the sacks.

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Women make up an increasing share of the fan base of the NFL.  Just like women are getting shit done in Congress, handling business in business, and pushing social change forward, they are also watching football.  The big game means big chances for advertisers to not only speak to women viewers, but to position themselves as a brand able to address women as full humans.  So how did advertisers do ditching the stereotypes and including women in the big game? Here are the big plays:

Same Ladies, New Era

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Several of the ads that featured women could claim that they are catering to women viewers, but the ad is really just the same old same old.  Anheuser Bush pitched a new sparkling beverage targeted at women (because real liquor would mess up our little lady minds!) with mermaids twirling beneath the sea.  Mermaids are a hot trend and a cold stereotype.  Sure undulating under the wave is sexy but you can’t run shit if you have no legs.

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Stella Artois went for a land version of a mermaid featuring the demure damsel in a dress Carrie Bradshaw.  Sex in the City aired from 1998 to 2004, just a year after the invasion of Iraq and three years before social media, and Carrie Bradshaw was a woman of her time kissing frogs and holding out for Mr. Big, a guy we would call problematic by today’s standards.  Is this the best they could do for a poster woman to bring beer ads into the 21st century? And then there was Zoe Kravitz with the organic, gluten-free bedroom eyes.  Sure ASRM is science, but its arousal factor is that same old sex-sells storyline.  A beer ad with ear porn isn’t speaking to women, just whispering to the boys.

The call: fumble. Sticking a woman in an ad during a football game doesn’t automatically mean you’re shattering any stereotypes. Recycling the same old themes or celebs, breathless and prettily sipping their drinks misses the moment and the movement that women are in.

Fearless Women With Fight

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Unlike undulating fish girls, several of the ads spoke to the power that women are taking on as we push towards gender equity.  Two ads promoted upcoming streaming shows: a promo for The Handmaid’s Tale third season on Hulu and one for a new show on Amazon prime called Hanna.  Both show women who are uninterested in being anybody’s sexy mermaid.  Handmaid’s tale is a pointed critique of contemporary gender politics, pulling no punches for the Superbowl crowd, calling on America to wake up.

Image result for hanna amazon prime Hanna also paints a dark world for women, where a young girl is turned into a weapon and must fight to be free.  While this certainly seems different from centuries of submissive and subjugated women, she is still a tool, shaped by a man to have only one strategy–violence. I don’t think this is what Helen Ready meant when she sang ‘hear me roar.’

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Sarah Michelle Geller revises her role as potential home invasion victim as a masked intruder stalks her and her man.  Hiding in the bedroom, her Olay smooth face is too lovely to open her facial recognition phone, but also disarming enough to charm a psychopath.  No kung fu or social resistance here, just a beauty made more beautiful by Olay slaying and staying alive.

The call: false start. Whatever troubled world these three women live in, they have what they need to stay alive without needing to call on a sailor for rescue, but it would be nice if women could do something other than fight off sexual predators.

The New Power Brokers

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Toyota chronicles the inspiring story of football phenom Toni Harris, East Los Angeles College defensive back–no kicker avoiding the ruffing here. As one of the first female athletes to place college football, her story is certain to motivate a generation of future football stars.  Toyotas and features game footage and off the field shots standard for any up and coming football star a-la-ESPN. She is presented as powerful, positive, and inspiring without pandering or paternalizing.  Here’s hoping we’ll see her on the field in the big game soon.

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Serena Williams starred in an ad for social app Bumble and served as co-creative director off camera for the campaign as well.  Neither mermaid or murderer,  Serena plays a real authentic version of a contemporary woman in the ad, doing real things like working and spending time with family and friends.  She is not a magical creature, or a fictional femme fatal, just a person looking to succeed and thrive, using a connecting app to connect all the parts of her life, not just dating. The ad speaks to real women’s needs: the need to get shit done without waiting for Mr. Big, the need for empowerment that relies on fresh, decolonized ways of being powerful. Of all the women we see featured in their own Superbowl ads–including the lovely and underutilized Cardi B–Serena seems the most authentically human, and the one that many women who work hard and want to watch the game with her girls are likely to recognize themselves in.  The ad speaks to women in a way that is free from typical patriarchial narratives, and one that doesn’t center sex as a selling point.  The ad really does speak to women as if they are full humans, though I wonder if the NFL would have given Serena a 3/5ths instead.

The call: touchdown! The push to topple patriarchy means women are moving to take their rightful place in our culture; advertisers must keep working to write the new narratives that reflect our changing gender landscape in America.  If the Superbowl ads are any indication, we still have a ways to go to shed the centuries-old stories dotted with damsels and doll-eyed beauties. One thing I know is that when we have women behind the camera and in leadership roles on creative teams we stand a good chance of getting more authentic images, the kind that will woo consumers and inspire girls looking for images that fell like them

How Not to Be H&M

If you heard a rumble in the jungle yesterday is was the internet coming full force at Swedish retailer H & M for this offensive ad selling a child’s sweatshirt:

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The ad was taken down after a twitterstorm of critique, 960,000 news articles and spokesperson The Weekend announced he was breaking up with the brand. The damage is done. This isn’t H&M’s first rodeo, either.  They caught similar heat for using all white models in South Africa.  They had a wake-up call and apparently hit snooze.   In this latest all-too-predictable episode, alarm and outrage from consumers were met with a tepid apology from H & M:

“We sincerely apologize for this image,” the company said in a statement. “It has been removed from all online channels and the product will not be for sale in the United States. We believe in diversity and inclusion in all that we do.”

Yes, that is correct.  They believe in diversity but will still be selling the t-shirt somewhere where you snowflakes won’t whine about it–namely in the UK.  So H&M hit snooze again. That barely passes the apology test.

 

The association between black people and monkeys, an association used to dehumanize black people and justify atrocities ranging from slavery to lynching to police brutality is perhaps one of the most well know negative stereotype of black people.  The global domination of American media means that even in Sweden, the images of white supremacy are familiar. As many people tweeted, someone should have caught this.

We have to move beyond the outrage machine.  Advertisers are experts at advertising, but that doesn’t automatically make them experts in cultural consciousness. So what can ad agencies do to avoid these missteps that can cost billion-dollar companies big in terms of boycotts and brand damage?

Start at the top

Thinking about diversity and inclusion should start long before the pitch. Connecting with consumers is the very heart of advertising, and connecting with diverse audiences should be at the heart of your agency’s values.  Women, minorities, people of different backgrounds and abilities make up the majority of America–and the world.

Senior management sets the tone. This means that executive teams should model the inclusiveness they seek for the whole agency. Agencies looking to do diversity right need to be sure executives have the time, knowledge and tools needed to make sure that diversity and inclusion isn’t just a value on paper.  Training your management team and arming them with a strategic plan with specifics will ensure they are prepared to turn inclusion from a buzzword into an action verb.

 Get the right people in the room

When bad ads come out, people often ask who was in the room.  Chances are high that there was little diversity: people of color remain underrepresented in the creative workforce.   While there has been an increase in gender representation since the Mad Men days, racial and cultural diversity remains an elusive goal for many agencies.

Having a diverse group of people working at an agency isn’t just about doing the right thing, it is about assembling a team that will have the skills needed to thrive in a complex cultural environment. According to Adobe’s recently released report, Creativity’s Diversity Disconnect,  lack of access and information about potential careers in advertising are a part of the problem, but the same report also indicates that creatives of color found barriers to success even once they were in the workplace. Diversifying your workforce should include pipeline development, hiring, and most importantly retention and promotion strategies.  This is a long game–despite widespread agreement in the field that diversity is important there is a long way to go and it will take time. But it won’t happen at all if agencies don’t develop and execute strategic plans to make the shift.

 

Make Everyone Responsible

Lots of critics of H&M asked why the parents didn’t step in.  I suggest you don’t depend on the parents or the model to protect your billion-dollar brand. Making sure you have people who can spot an error before it goes out the door is key. That doesn’t mean scuttling your current workforce, it means training them. While you are working on growing diversity in-house, give all your employees the tools they need with training in culturally-conscious production.  Regular training, as well as opportunities to keep current and learn from others’ wins and losses, can help ensure there is always someone in the room ready to ask the right questions.

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The data is clear–America is becoming more diverse.  Diverse audiences are looking for advertising that respects and reflects their experiences.   Not only that, when advertising reproduces old racist ideas, audiences have the tools to quickly organize, calling for boycotts and trashing offending brands. This isn’t a trend, it is a new day.  Agencies need to shift their thinking about diversity from an add-on to absolutely critical and find ways to support diversity efforts beyond the hire date. Leadership that models and values diversity, processes that consider culturally-conscious production, and time for training and discussion can make diversity everybody’s business, a value that will reflect in the work.

 

Dove: Diversity Done Wrong (and What to Do About It)

Dove caught those Twitter fingers again this weekend in a flurry of criticism unleashed by this facebook ad:

The ad was reposted again on Twitter. Well deserved criticism was followed by the predictable cycle of the ad being pulled, an apology, a promise to do better; I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw Dove announce some diversity initiative in the coming weeks with a press release entitled “We’re getting better”, or some such PR-speak.  Of course, this wasn’t Dove’s first round in the hot seat.

This 2015 ad caught heat for the not so subtle suggestion that lighter skin was better.  Dove is not alone in bad ads touting white as right.  This ad from Nivea was pulled for reasons that should have been obvious to the creative team before the ad went live.  What happened?

In a world of increasing diversity, advertising is also showing a rainbow of representation.  Everywhere you look are crowds carefully staged with one of each race, laughing over beer or nail polish.  These one-of-each ads are about catering to a variety of audience segments at once.  Diverse representation ensures consumers of any race can see themselves as potential users of the products. Too often these ads trivialize minorities, positioning them in ways that reinforce old stereotypes, or use them as background to the real focus. The presence of diversity alone does not mean the ads are better, or even that the people producing these ads know the best way to represent our multicultural landscape. Behind the ads we see, advertising is one of the whitest industries, and it’s struggling to adapt to a diverse consumer audience.

This may sound funny to say, but people that make ads are professional advertisers. They are not race and gender activists.  While some, of course, hold political and social positions that look towards justice, to appoint them arbiters of the new ways to represent race in a rapidly changing cultural context is a setup, at best.  Advertising is created by teams of creative professionals under budget constraints and deadline–do they all have the time, knowledge and resources to think deeply about how race is described and typified in the work they create?

Without diversity in the industry’s workforce and a priority in the creative process, it will be hard for brands to connect with their audience.  Millenials especially expect a level of racial sensitivity advertisers may not be used to. Who is in the room matters.  Increased diversity in the advertising industry will help brands stay sharp, and benefit from diverse perspectives before they put out some racist work that costs them brand appeal and cash.

Advertisers should spend a little to save a lot:  spend the energy to ensure their workforce is diverse; spend the afternoon it takes to engage in some education about what’s happening now–a lecture, a consultant, a TED talk, for god’s sake, to keep your ideas about who you are selling to current; and spend the resources to double check ads before they go out.  It’s 2017: that “we-forgot-to-not-be-racist” apology will get you canceled.  Just ask Dove.

Shea Moisture: They’re Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes, Pt 2

Shea Moisture put out an ad this week called Hair Hate and then sat back and enjoyed their own Pepsi moment.  Here’s the ad below:

For a company that is built by, for and literally on black women, expanding their customer base by equating the hair challenges of naturals with the bad hair days of gingers and blondes wasn’t an overreach, it was a betrayal.   Shortly after Shea Moisture’s dragging began, so did the comparisons to the Pepsi ad.  Both seemed tone deaf, trivializing important aspect of black culture to sell product.  But I said it about Pepsi and now I’ll say it about Shea Moisture–they’re not tone deaf, they’re assholes; they’re not silly, they’re sell outs.

Shea Moisture’s built its brand on black women and their hard earned cash.  Even the label tells the homey story of the brand’s founder’s grandmother Sofi Tucker selling product in Sierra Leon.  Last year the brand shouted its allegiance to ethnic hair by proudly proclaiming it was going to desegregate the beauty isle–the implication being that Shea Moisture’s move to shelf space in the non-ethinc hair care section (called the regular hair section by most people) was about making hair care inclusive of black beauty, not leaving it behind. This ad clearly positions Shea Moisture as here for black women. Turns outs they were just getting ready to sell out in the rush to gentrify haircare and expand their own customer base and bottom line.

This is not a tone deaf company.  This is a company that has carefully–and with great success–made it big by catering to black women.  Looking back, it seems the brand, like an NBA player, wasn’t trying to rock with the sisters once it started making it big time (please don’t write me letters, my woke NBA brothers).  The move to the regular hair isle is now followed up with an ad that is shifting the brand to one that serves “regular hair”  The new ad is the shampoo equivalent of all hair matters, compete with Becky with the good hair. (Did they not listen to Lemonade?!)

Hair is an important marker of identity, especially for women, and especially for black women.  The natural hair movement has grown along with the movement for black lives.  Like the rallying cry, ‘Black is Beautiful’ in the 70’s, the natural hair movement cannot be separated from the politics and social change of our time.

Shea Moisture seeks to equate the hate of different kinds of hair without acknowledging that some hair hate comes with real consequences.  The hate towards natural hair in schools, business, and social situations is about more than hair, it is reinforcing white supremacy.  To act like hair hate is about hair and not hate means that Shea Moisture just doesn’t understand us anymore.  Maybe they never really loved us, they just loved our hair style.  Something tells me they’re about to find out if Becky with the good hair can love them like we did.

Pepsi’s Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes

Last week in the can opening heard round the world, Kendell Jenner solved racism in Pepsi’s crap ad posted below–please watch at your own discretion and preferably not while you are eating.

The ad takes the markers of recent civil resistance and boils it down to some musical hipster millennials that conveniently come in a one-of-each variety pack.  As you can imagine, the internet, led by the beacon of black twitter, lost its mind and Pepsi pulled the ad off the air within 24 hours.  A flurry of news coverage and talk show segments roundly condemned the ad as tone deaf, as brilliantly portrayed in this skit on SNL (below).  The week ends with a bunch of high fives as we congratulate ourselves on a moment of shared outrage across racial lines.  We can all agree here–tone deaf.

But you know your girl here has a different opinion.  I disagree that Pepsi was tone deaf. And SNL’s skewering of the ad? It seems to portray the ad’s producers as hapless creatives who didn’t listen to their black friends–of course, they couldn’t be expected to see the problem on their own, and of course, there was no ill intention.  That’s not a skewering, that’s an excuse.

Pepsi has a long history off co-opting outsider youth culture and dragging it into the mainstream, redefining it for the masses in the process.  More than mere celebrity endorsements, Pepsi’s slogan of Pepsi Generation, and later Generation Next specifically seeks to align itself with and define youth culture. Ads like those starring Brittany Spears or Michael Jackson intentionally seeks to mirror a more mainstream, palatable and- profitable–version of whatever that year’s young people like.

Whether it is the hippies of the 70’s, the magic of Michael Jackson in the 80’s or even the girl power of the Spice Girls in the 2000’s Pepsi’s brand is all about creating a reductionist version of youth culture to sell to sugar water to the masses. Decade after decade, Pepsi has traded on what young people think is cool, targeting products at various youth subcultures–like Mountain Dew for motor-bikers.

What’s more, Pepsi also has a long history of targeting black consumers.  In the 1940’s Pepsi even had a negro marketing department, according to this fascinating article about how soda is racist af.   So no, Pepsi is not tone deaf, they are crafty, capitalizing on the very cultures they misrepresent and have been for decades.

And that brings us back to this latest disaster of social-justice-y porn.  In the Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi hits every corner of a very diverse youth demographic–every race, a good mash up of random instruments and dance steps, a Muslim woman–enamored of course with Kendell’s stunning display of white feminism–hipsters with and without beards, gentrifiers with and without signs, and activism decidedly without any ideology. Pepsi sucked the life, passion and meaning out of the very real revolution happening in this moment of time and turned it into a moving stock photography image.  But taking the depth, meaning, and messiness out of life to sell product isn’t going to stop with this one ad getting taken down.  Look around you.  Everywhere advertisers are cashing in on our deepest feelings and most fervent hopes.  As altruism, connection, activism, and awareness have become trending ways of being, advertisers are increasingly using these most meaningful qualities to sell shit.

This State Farm ad is touching and heartwarming, and like the Pepsi ad features a diverse cast of characters starring a white savior with the power to transform the life of the poor, downtrodden, and brown.  While this ad is moving and inspiring as opposed to Pepsi’s abomination, both ads seek to use your positive feelings towards creating a better world to sell you product.  Both ads ignore any structural analysis of what social movements are seeking to disrupt.  Both ads put the power of individual white people as the simple answer that can eradicate widespread social injustice. Pepsi’s ad went too far and was condemned, but the State Farm ad was embraced

Ads selling us back the very essence of who we are are everywhere. When ads with social themes are done poorly, it’s good to see that consumer pushback can force advertiser accountability.  When they are done carefully, they make us smile, feel nice–and buy more.  In order to have broad appeal, the complex and controversial edges of life are sanded off in favor of a lighter, happier look at our world–one where products can often solve the worst problems in 30-60 seconds. Staying woke means making sure that you don’t allow capitalism to sell you back your fight against capitalism and other unfair systems.  Now that Pepsi has your twitter fingers warmed up, stay on the look out for capitalists in activists’ clothing.

 

 

 

 

 

Gentrifying Shampoo

This week Pantene rolled out a beautiful ode to black women to artfully showcase what they present here as a line of products for natural hair.

So this is the part of the post where you think I’m going to praise Pantene for dope visuals, a rainbow of brown skinned lovelies, and a little finger-snapping slam-lite–wrong.  Sure this video brings the love of natural hair to the mainstream, making visible the black women who have been so ignored by the hair care industry.  Sure the video chants a little manifesto singing the praises of black beauty and power.  But don’t sleep, Pantene didn’t wake up one day with visions of Angela Davis for the masses.  Pantene is just gentrifying the natural hair product neighborhood and throwing some shade in the process.

If You Build It, They Will Come (And Take It From You)

Natural hair care products are a $946 million dollar industry, a sector of hair care that has seen explosive growth over the last few years.  Long before Pantene Gold started growing dreads, hair care for natural hair was nowhere to be seen on the mainstream scene.   Even the brands that did cater to unprocessed hair were few and far between.  As the natural hair movement grew, there were attempts to grab a share of the market with products like an early attempt for women of color called Pantene Naturals.  The problem was that these products were more about marketing, with formulations that were not markedly different from the rest of the brand’s lines.  The product packaging targets women of color but sulfates and dyes destroy their hair if they use it. Now that the natural hair care market can’t be ignored, Pantene is back for another slice of the African (hair)pie.

 

Meanwhile natural brands like Miss Jessie’s, Shea Mountain, As I Am and others did the real work finding ways to truly care for black hair–working directly with the women who used their product, learning from the ancestors secret recipes, and redesigning the natural hair care regimen with modern formulations that actually work for a diverse group of often ignored customers.  These companies, many owned by women of color, did the hard work to build a cottage industry into the natural hair juggernaut that it is today.

And then here comes Pantene.  Like a Starbucks in Brooklyn.  Sure, it seems nice at first until you can’t afford to live in your own apartment. Or until you can’t, as a small business owner, compete with a huge corporate entity like Pantene and you get knocked out of your own market. The natural hair movement is democratic with hundreds of bloggers, businesswomen and home product developers following in the steps of Madame CJ Walker, but it looks like this nation is about to be attacked by shamPutin Pantene.

By the Way, We Still Think Your Hair Sucks

I couldn’t help but notice when I looked at the actual product that is celebrating black women that nowhere on the product packaging does Pantene Gold say that is its designed for natural hair, or black hair beautiful in that many ways the commercial described it.  The line is aimed at “dry, damaged hair”.  That’s right, you snapping-your-fingers-as-you-snap-up-Pantene-queens–they just called your crown dry and damaged.  All that lovely poetry isn’t on the package.  Instead, just a reminder that the world still sees your hair as fundamentally flawed.

As_I_Am_Coconut_Cleansing_Conditioner_-_16_oz___TargetOther natural haircare lines use language that celebrates natural hair on the product line itself, not just pays lip service to it in ads.  Without the ad above, you wouldn’t know that Pantene was even trying to connect with the black community–and frankly, that wouldn’t be anything new.   I’m going to skip the hype on this one and keep supporting the business that cared about me and my hair, not just my wallet.

 

Loads of Love

Recently this Ariel laundry soap ad, titled #sharetheload , from India crossed my desk (thanks, D!) and brought a little tear to my eye.

The touching story of a father who learns–not too late–the importance of balancing the second shift at home is more than just bubbly suds.  When women entered the workforce, the talk was all about being able to bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan AND of course cater to your mates masculinity.  After years of all y’all trying to have it all, it’s time to concede:  work-life balance is a struggle if the partnership follows the plotline of Leave it to Beaver or today’s patch of modern sitcoms with dope dads and super moms.

The Don Draper uber-masculine scotch drinking dad of yesteryear is dead.  Cold distant dads are out.  Today with a wide variety of family structures and work commitments, the old school gender-role  driven division of labor is giving way to more balanced homes.  What’s more, sharing chores with your mate is good for more than clean laundry.  Here sociologist Michael Kimmel talks about the many benefits shared home-work.

So don’t wait till you’re a silver fox to pitch in at home.  Who knows, dinner might not be the only thing you get cooking!