Gender and Ethics in Advertising: The New CSR Frontier?


by Derek Linsell on 8/08/2011

Earlier this year, Got Milk released an ad series targeting men who evidently suffer greatly when their female partners have PMS. Change.org created a petition denouncing the pictures that showed cowering men holding cartons of milk, with quotes over their heads like “I’m sorry for not reading between the right lines.” The campaign came complete with a website just for men, www.everythingidoiswrong.org, that featured an “emergency milk locator” and a “Global PMS Scale.”

Another ad, for the domain provider GoDaddy.com,  features the race car driver Danica Patrick and the celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels, wearing nothing but heels and the GoDaddy logo. With big hair and heavy makeup, the two stroll on the set as “GoDaddy Girls,” where two jokes are made about Michaels getting the “double Ds.”

Meanwhile women visiting the local drugstore to pick up some deodorant have the option to buy Degree, a choice that is “extra responsive in emotional moments.”

In a world with a shifting social consciousness and women accounting for 85% of all consumer purchases, it is astounding that such blatant sexism still abounds in the marketplace. GoDaddy.com sends a message to women that the technology consumer market (which continues to be heavily male skewed) is not intended for their consumption; Got Milk and Degree suggest that women are emotional basket cases who need milk or specially formulated deodorant to contain their raging passions.

There is a general consensus in the world of business that companies must engage in corporate social responsibility in giving back to their communities and their consumers. In 2004 Chris Moore, of the advertising giant Oglivy & Mather, explained that 80% of Americans said they felt better about companies that were aligned with social issues, and recent studies confirm that statistic.

Indeed, Degree and GoDaddy both have CSR initiatives in place (Got Milk is a marketing board for the California Milk Processor’s Association, so there is no CSR program in place at the moment). Degree’s parent company, Unilever, has a wealth of sustainability and community outreach programs, and GoDaddy.com has an extensive philanthropic program benefiting local communities as well as a scholarship program for high school age students who use Internet technology in their studies.

We’ve all laughed about the horribly sexist Goodyear Tire and Folgers adsof the 1950s, and most of us would agree that women and men should be treated equally throughout society. However, these ads raise a question: Why isn’t depicting women in a fair and respectable light an ethical obligation—a CSR obligation—for some companies?

An essay in Muse magazine confronts head on the issues with sexism in advertising:

There are serious social impacts from this kind of advertising back on society—unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies and resulting body image problems, sexual and domestic violence, and sexism being reinforced as an acceptable form of behavior . . . we are being subconsciously enticed to buy products by companies who believe that it is okay to use women’s bodies in a sexual way to make their brand cool, hip and sexy.

CSR is not just about helping kids, the environment or the needy. It is also about behaving responsibly and ethically toward society as a whole. This means moving past gender stereotypes that affect men and women and creating ads that reflect the same values. As consumers, we should applaud ads that celebrate women as strong, non-sexualized leaders in their communities—brands like Dermalogica’s FITE and the NikeFoundation’s sponsorship of the Girl Effect are great examples of positive social messaging around women and girls.

As brands continue to become increasingly interactive with their consumers, we will expect that they become not only our friends but also our role models for social change. CSR is a relatively new concept, and it has more often than not been a standalone philanthropic initiative for companies. As social change messaging continues to filter beyond marketing and into broader business objectives, communicating respectfully with the 85% of consumers who are female will no longer be optional for advertisers.

derek.linsell@apricotconsulting.us

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