Wrestling dollars from consumers is the main purpose of advertising. And now, during Christmas gift-buying season, this is more apparent than ever. Some ads are brilliant. Others stretch the limits of good taste.
In 2005, clothing designer Marithé Francois Girbaud created a billboard that played off Leonardo da Vinci's iconic Christian-inspired painting The Last Supper. The ad featured a female Jesus Christ, female diners and a lone half-naked man with his underwear and the top of his buttocks showing. The company received almost immediate backlash against the ad from those who questioned what jeans had to do with the twisted religious imagery portrayed.
The company's primary defence was that women can only achieve equality with men if they sacrifice their femininity. The ad was meant to create a new perception of femininity by "presenting men, instead of women, in a position of fragility."
MasterCard's most recent MasterIndex of Canadian Women Consumers says 51 per cent of Canadian women are responsible for the day-to-day household financial decisions, with mothers generally having sole responsibility of the daily finances of their households. In the U.S. and some European countries, statistics show up to 85 per cent of women control their household's everyday purchases.
Companies such as Girbaud seem to be trying to capitalize on this female buying power. And they're not above using shock value to do so. It's not necessarily a bad tactic, according to a September 2003 report, Does it Pay to Shock?, in the Journal of Advertising Research. The report quotes studies that show shocking adverts can be effective in influencing behaviour by increasing memory and attention.
The key words here are "influencing behaviour." This is exactly what modern advertising does. It no longer simply promotes a product. Advertising tells us who we are or who we should be, and what we should consider normal.
This is cause for concern considering the average North American is bombarded with 2,000 ads daily, some of which are distastefully shocking or promote views damaging to society. As consumers, we need to consciously evaluate the advertising we see and exercise our power to protest against inappropriate or offensive ads.
This sometimes already happens, as can be seen with the uproar over the Girbaud ad. It also happens (and rightly so) with any advertisement that reduces women to sexual objects to be conquered and used.
Take the 2007 magazine ad by the clothing designer Dolce & Gabbana. It featured a sultry woman with parted red lips and a blank look, pinned down by a shirtless man while three well-dressed guys watched. Or Audi's 2013 commercial where Dateless Prom Boy accosts the prom queen and forces her to kiss him, proving he's a "real man."
It's disappointing to still see the continual and objectionable sexualization of women in ads, but it's equally disappointing to see the frequent and distasteful dummyfication (yes, I made up that word) of men. Men are too often portrayed as sexual predators, crude blockheads or complete buffoons easily manipulated and incapable of doing anything without the assistance of their female partners. And the masses seem to think this is OK.
"Who says that we (men) are biologically programmed to be both rapacious testosterone-driven animals and lazy remote-hogging couch potatoes unable to lift a finger in the kitchen?" said Michael Kimmel on CNN last year when commenting on male/female relationships. He is a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University in New York.
It seems some advertisers do. And it isn't because women have taken over the world of advertising on a mission to belittle men.
The Business Insider, an American business and technology news website, reports only three per cent of women in advertising agencies are creative directors, and the numbers aren't much higher in the management ranks of these agencies, or businesses in general.
What this suggests is that it's not women who are coming up with these male-bashing ads. It's the men themselves, possibly in an attempt to cash in on a perceived increase in women's buying power by, to use Girbaud's words, "presenting men in a position of fragility."
Is this what women really want? I don't. And I know other women who are also tired of advertising that presents their partners, brothers, fathers and sons as biologically flawed, unmotivated, abusive, slow-witted numbskulls and commitment-phobic family-destroyers unable to be responsible, loving, hands-on dads.
Not all men are like this and it's repugnant when advertising implies they are.
Diana Moes VandeHoef is a Winnipeg freelance writer and independent copywriter who has written marketing and public relations material for clients in five countries.