It’s becoming all too easy for brands to use sexism as low-hanging fruit to go viral. Time after time, we rise to the bait, giving the brands exactly what they set out to achieve internet fame.
In some ways, it’s reassuring to see a brand getting dragged for sexism. The fact that people will readily call BS on companies objectifying women and reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes is a sign of hope and progress. For some brands, getting dragged for sexism is a dream-come-true; a chance to go viral; to be the name on everyone’s lips, or tweets, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.
On an almost daily basis, sexism in headlines, adverts and newspaper front pages is getting taken to task on Twitter. But, by tweeting about those brands and making them go viral, are we giving them exactly what they want?
No such thing as bad publicity
As Oscar Wilde said “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. Brand managers are well aware of this,” says Anthony Patterson, professor of marketing at Liverpool University. A “response whether outrage or support demonstrates that consumers are engaging with their brand.”
Patterson says the willingness of brands to court controversy stems from their worry that their latest campaigns will go unnoticed and ignored by “an indifferent and disinterested consumer body”. “Brands well know that courting controversy via the odd comment that could be interpreted as sexist is sure to garner a response from observers on social media,” Patterson continues.
Take the Daily Mail, for example. On eve of Britain triggering Article 50 and officially entering Brexit negotiations, it was #LegsIt (not #Brexit) that topped the UK’s Twitter trends. The newspaper’s headline declaring “Forget about Brexit, who won Legs-it!” alongside a photograph of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and British Prime Minister Theresa May and a pain staking analysis of their legs, prompted the ire of thousands on social media.
A statement from a Daily Mail spokesperson (which began with “for goodness sake, get a life”) only added fuel to the fire. “Sarah Vine’s piece, which was flagged as light-hearted, was a side-bar alongside a serious political story.” The Daily Mail wasn’t sorry. And, why would they be? We, by venting our outrage on Twitter at their “light-hearted” sexism, made #LegsIt the most talked-about story of the day.Was it all a trap?
The ‘light-hearted’ excuse just doesn’t cut it
But, this isn’t the first time the word “light-hearted” has been used by a brand accused of sexism. Increasingly, obscure and previously-unheard-of brands are using provocative and sexist advertising to ensure their brands get noticed. In 2016, a billboard advert for a gym in Derbyshire was accused of being “offensive and fat-shaming”. When asked for a comment, Jan Spaticchia, chief executive of gym company Energie Group, said that by taking a “light-hearted approach” they felt they can “connect” with more people.
Recently, USPAAH, a relatively unknown mobile spa app was called out on Twitter for its sexist ad on the London Underground. “Out with the guys ’til 4am again?! Keep her sweet with a spa mani/pedi at home,” it read. Rather than apologising, the brand responded to the criticism with a series of extremely sassy replies, further stoking the Twitter fire. “We were thinking that it’s a lighthearted anecdote based on our experiences. That’s all. But thanks for your feedback,” read one of USPAAH’s sassy tweets. When asked for comment, a spokesperson said they were ware that their “cheeky campaign” had “caused a bit of a stir on Twitter”.
And, just this week, London estate agent Marsh & Parsons was dragged on Twitter and forced to remove an advert after it was accused of being “demeaning to women”. The text of the advert appears to describe the pictured woman as a “modern extension” to her older partner, who’s described as a “charming period property”. The company’s CEO, David Brown, said the ad was intended to be part of a series of “tongue-in-cheek” ads comparing people to property and reflecting “the range of people” and properties they work with. “We have always tried to get our message across with a gentle sense of humour and up until now, our work has been extremely well-received,” said Brown. He said the campaign was intended to “prompt conversation”.
“There is no need to advertise in a sexist manner and it is bad and indeed lazy advertising that does [use sexism],” says Professor Isabelle Szmigin at the University of Birmingham. She says the “tongue-in-cheek response” to criticism is “just too easy” for brands and positions people who complain as “supposedly without a sense of humour”.
Szmigin adds that that “the key” for new brands is to get attention and “many brands go for the easy route”. This is so true. It is all too easy to dismiss casual sexism as a bit of “light-hearted” fun after you’ve achieved viral fame for your brand. But, at what cost?
The thing is, “light-hearted” sexism is still sexism.
If a brand or media company knowingly uses sexism as a device to get attention, even if the employees behind the campaign don’t subscribe to the message behind the ad, it still feeds into and fuels a persistent narrative of sexism and misogyny. These ads might seem harmless, but not everyone will know about the marketing strategy lurking behind them.
A spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority said that gender stereotyping in ads is a live issue that they’ve been investigating over the past year. “Ads should not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread harm or offence, and particular care should be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of amongst other thingsgender and sexuality,” the spokesperson said.
Women shouldn’t be roadkill in a brand’s race to get viral fame. Brands, it’s time to get your act together and find another way to get internet fame.
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