Men and Advertising Don’t Mix

Tracey Barnett ©March 2010

A young woman stands in front of a mirror in the commercial, getting ready for the evening. She takes some tissue, lovingly rubs its softness against her cheek for a minute, then—according to everyone’s idea of a good time–stuffs the tissue down her bra. As you do. She even seems beatifically pleased about this, as if she just padded her breasts with Holy Communion wafers.

You tell me, would this straight-faced commercial have ever seen the light of day had it featured a man? Would we ever see a man shoving a wad of tissue down the front of his pants? Or be rewarded with a close up of his trouser bulge as he revels in the softness?

Who are you gentlemen writing for—Dame Edna? Because I don’t believe it’s real women. I say men, because of about 55 ad agencies in New Zealand, only one woman holds a Creative Director chair, according to Communications Agencies Association of New Zealand. That is a pathetic statistic. The top banana creatives are still all men trying to figure out a market overwhelmingly dominated by the new buying power of women.

Women today control almost 85 percent of every household dollar spent. That’s not just buying power over detergent anymore. It’s everything from electronics to cars, where women now influence 75-80 percent of all buying decisions, according to Cheryl Berman of Leo Burnett.

We are your market. So how are you Sage Ones selling to us? Badly.

When Elle McPherson writhes in her lingerie, I don’t think, “If I buy that, I’ll look like her.” Instead, the impossibility of that image on my body makes me shrug and get out the Thunderpants. It actually drives me away as a consumer. Whenever men want to peddle a sexual ideal that appeals more to them than their female customers, you sell it as “women’s empowerment”. What doo-doo.

A women’s empowerment fantasy is a post-coital shot of George Clooney and yourself on the couch where you’ve just polished off the last piece of his homemade chocolate cake during the foot massage—and you control the remote. Men are trading in aspirational selling, but we’re not delusional buyers.

Better yet, try depicting your customers as corpses. Did someone really believe women would be enticed to go to a boutique whose recent billboards depict a dead woman impaled on a metal fence and another lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase with the tagline, “Be caught dead in it.” Now that’s aspirational selling, Boys. You got my attention. Now you won’t get my dollars.

When is the last time you heard men remark they were insulted by a commercial in the way that women do? Maybe it’s understandable when you do the math. We have 99 percent male Creative Director’s trying to inject their brains into an almost 85 percent female-controlled marketplace.

That’s not how it starts out, of course. AUT regularly sees as many as 60-70 percent women enter its advertising programme. Yet somehow they get shunted into account management where women regularly comprise over half those departments, like sous-chefs who never get their name above the restaurant door.

Why? Partly, it’s the old story. There’s still an entrenched male culture in the top echelons, according to University of South Carolina research. But try injecting just one entirely female adjective onto your resume, the word ‘mother’.

Studies found there wasn’t a single major-league female executive who has both children and a husband with an equally demanding job. Many top women didn’t have children.

If you do, tough luck. Stanford University found a mother was 100% less likely to be hired than a childless woman when listed on identical resumes. A mother was even offered $11,000 [USD] less salary than her childless counterpart. Was there a similar parent penalty for men? Hardly. Fathers and non-fathers got equal callbacks. Ever heard of a man not having children to focus on his career?

Maybe the bigger truth is that this is ultimately about who holds the reins of true creative power, the last real bastion of sexism at its purest. Testosterone doesn’t require collaboration. Perhaps that’s why an industry that is supposed to be galloping ahead of the curve is wallowing in Mad Men mindsets still today, wasting over half its talent at their career peak by failing to retain and promote its female stars. You see it in the overwhelmingly male roll call of top artists, fashion designers, chefs, or architects. When there is a sharp pencil point that can only balance one ego in the creative process, stupidly, we let men win.

The irony is, we are all worse served for it. It makes sense that men may never naturally understand secondhand the woman-dominated market upon which their jobs depend. There’s no guarantee women will do it any better. But until those percentages of Creative Directors flip—or men learn to read today’s woman better—we’re all destined to keep stuffing toilet paper down our shirts because some schlub believes that’s what women want. What we really want is his job.

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