Showing posts with label consumer issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label consumer issues. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“Perfect Vodka”? Yeah, no — let’s just keep calling it Coral Sky Amphitheatre

The former Coral Sky Amphitheatre—previously Cruzan Amphitheatre, Sound Advice Amphitheatre, Coral Sky Amphitheatre again, Mars Music Amphitheatre, and Coral Sky Amphitheatre the first time—has another new name: Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre. None of us should call it that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Perfect Vodka, and, frankly, the next time I make the decision to morosely nurse a broken heart with liquid therapy, I’m pleased to know that I’ve got a local, non-GMO, gluten-free option to fuel some inevitably pathetic texts imploring girls from yesteryear to take me back I didn’t mean it I’m so lonely [crying cat emoji]. And really, it’s not like “Coral Sky” is a particularly inspired name.

But companies regularly spend billions to influence what we think, say, and write, and we should stop being complicit in it.

This, first and foremost, includes news organizations. No honorable journalist would do pro bono shilling for a company, and no dishonorable journalist would do so without getting paid. Yet both are more than happy to drop a company’s name in an otherwise unrelated news story about a concert or sporting event or political rally, completely free of charge, because that company paid someone else for naming rights.

Some reporters may argue that they have a journalistic responsibility to properly identify the subjects in their stories using their self-declared names. For example, UNC-Chapel Hill announced in May that a building on their campus, Saunders Hall, would be renamed Carolina Hall. Nobody would quarrel with reporters using the new name because the new name reflects the evolution of race relations, respect for the school’s diverse student population, and the general notion that it’s not a keen idea to have school buildings named after Klansmen in the 21st century.

When Coral Sky becomes Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre, however, the only thing it reflects is the gaming by marketers of what constitutes a “name.” And when a venue runs through so many “names” based on who’s giving its owners money at the moment, it cedes the right to have a name; it instead becomes an unnamed venue that has very prominent ad space available. To put it more simply, if Live Nation insisted that the formal name of the amphitheatre was “Coral Sky Amphitheatre Sponsored By Perfect Vodka,” there isn’t an editor who wouldn’t zap the last four words. How is instead calling it “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” any better?

This is more than an inside-baseball, ethics-in-naming-journalism issue, however. It’s about reclaiming the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we view the world around us.

It’s not a coincidence that we think we need to go to “Publix” as opposed to “the grocery store,” or that we say we’re buying “Kleenex” instead of “facial issue”; it’s a part of a concerted effort to embed brands into every aspect of our conscious life. Try going a week without using brand names in conversation. Or even a day. It’s difficult, and even if you can do it, it’ll sound very unnatural to both you and those listening to you. That, too, is not a coincidence.

What makes venue sponsorships particularly egregious is that the companies involved are asking—nay, telling—us to use a brand name for no reason other than they say so. Dennis Cunningham, the president of Perfect Vodka, is quoted in the press release announcing the name change as saying that “[g]reat music and our smooth vodka are sure to make perfect memories,” which is revealing: they’re not just buying naming rights. They’re trying to buy a space in our memories—a space that they did not earn and have no business occupying.

There’s also something very worrying about getting accustomed to viewing everything around us as a medium for advertising. When we see that even things as fundamental as names are for sale at the right price, it trains us to view the places—and, by extension, the people—around us as mere commodities to be exploited then disposed of rather than things that have value, merit, and beauty beyond generating wealth. And South Florida—which, at its worst, is marked by conspicuous consumption, bulldozers, cosmetic surgery, and McMansions—doesn’t need any help fostering a culture of disposability.

To be fair, the venue at 601-7 Sansbury Way isn’t the Grand Canyon, and “Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre” isn’t the abomination that “Arizona Presents Verizon Gorge” would be. But it’s not inconceivable that an ambitious marketing executive will see a compliant public desensitized to the banal horrors of omnipresent branding and find new, previously sacrosanct places to stick their brand names and logos. The onus is on us to head that off now.

Our thoughts, our speech, and our culture shouldn’t be for sale. Live Nation can call its amphitheater whatever it wants, and Perfect Vodka can pay whatever it wants to Live Nation, but we shouldn’t go along with it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fallon’s Quicken Loans ad: Sign a 30-year mortgage or be an un-American pussy, brah

 


For one fleeting moment, I thought Quicken Loans’s “Buy In” (or “#BuyIn”) TV commercial, the work of Minneapolis, Minn.-based agency Fallon, was a magnificent, self-aware satire of unscrupulous lending, the devaluation of patriotism and courage, and terrible advertising in general when the voiceover actor informed us that:

None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

It turns out that it was none of those things. The commercial is as sincere as it is boneheaded, which I suppose is its own sort of magnificence. They’re right, though—no part of this ad makes rational sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the text of the voiceover, delivered with the sort of cocky, vaguely bullying cadence you’d expect from, say, a creepy dudebro in his late twenties super-seriously pressuring his buddies to stop being pussies and just hook up with that drunk girl at a high school kegger:

The American Dream is terrifying. American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense. 
Here, the hard things show us who we are. Leaving your job to start your own thing. Having a kid when you still feel like a kid. Signing a 30-year mortgage on a home. Scary? Sure. But no match for our colossal self-belief. We’re supposed to do scary. Without scary, we don’t get to be brave. Buy in.

No, seriously.

* * *

Art Steiber, the vice president of marketing and sponsorships at Quicken Loans, told Ad Age that the campaign is specifically intended to assuage the fears of would-be homebuyers after the housing and financial crises of the last decade. And I get it; the economy’s improving, and there are undoubtedly people for whom homeownership is feasible but are understandably apprehensive about pulling the trigger.

But let’s remember that the subprime mortgage crisis was precipitated by predatory lenders hoodwinking consumers into taking out loans that they couldn’t afford and should have never been offered. The apprehension felt by consumers that reverberates years after the recession isn’t merely a marketing challenge for Quicken Loans to solve; it’s the hard-won wisdom that many people had their lives ruined for us to learn. Indeed, that fear is a good thing; it’s the final line of defense before you get pressured into making a bad decision.

It’s unseemly for Quicken Loans to dismiss that fear so cavalierly—and, worse still, make ignoring that fear some sort of virtuous deed. Buying a house shouldn’t be some brave, capricious decision that doesn’t make rational sense; it should be the result of a sober, dispassionate, realistic analysis of your financial situation and your personal goals.

This commercial, in fact, reminds me of an infamous ad from Century 21 in 2006, just before the housing meltdown. That spot—called “The Debate”—features a wife who’s bullying her husband into buying a house while their real estate agent joins in on the bullying via speakerphone. The tag-team pressure tactics work, the husband agrees to buy the house, and it’s supposed to be a happy moment—until, presumably, they defaulted on their loan a couple of years later and had to move into his in-laws’ basement. It’s pretty heinous:




Fuckin’ Suzanne and her research.

What Quicken Loans is trying to do is tell consumers not to trust their instincts. They’re dressing it up in patriotic imagery and the themes of courage, but the message remains the same: ignore the part of you that’s telling you to think this through and do it. Advertising does this all the time, of course, and it’s easy to laugh it off when we’re told to Call Today, Don’t Delay for infomercial ephemera. But when the same technique is applied to buying a house instead of a Slap Chop, just a few years after the destruction of so many people’s personal wealth stemming in part from imprudent house-buying, it’s some kind of appalling.

* * *

Let’s take a moment to recognize how wonderfully misguided this passage from the voiceover is:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

Let’s ignore that they’ve glossed over a lot of American history with “ocean, moon, fly.” (And we’ll ignore the fact that the chronology is off; I’m pretty sure we were flying before moonwalking, both literally and otherwise.) I love that their misguided appeal to American exceptionalism included the implication that “rational” and “American” are antonyms.

More seriously, though, that passage is factually inaccurate: all those things did make rational sense. Finding efficient trade routes, beating the Soviet Union in the Space Race during the Cold War, and traveling quickly between faraway places—what parts of any of those things are irrational? Quicken Loans gives away the game inadvertently here; they know that, for many people, buying a home is an irrational decision—based more on ego and appearances than what’s best for them financially—but they try to downplay that irrationality by falsely claiming other things were irrational, too.

I don’t blame them, of course; more honest copy would read:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: Plessy v. Ferguson, the Vietnam War, KFC Double Downs. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

But it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

* * *

Not to belabor the point, but not everybody needs to own a home. And more importantly, not everybody needs to aspire to own a home.

One of the creepier things about the commercial is the way it presents homeownership as a necessary component of living the American Dream and, by extension, being a true American. Reinforcing the idea that there’s one single ideal life to which we should all aspire is pretty pernicious; it leads to disappointment, crippling debt, and a perpetual cycle of acquiring things to fill an ever-expanding hole in your soul.

A lot of advertising is predicated on making products seem like universal desires; it’s easier to convince somebody to want a product if they’ve already been conditioned to accept that product as something they’re supposed to want. But forced conformity is bad for us all. Don’t get me wrong; if someone chooses to want their little box made of ticky-tacky, then that’s fine, and I’m not judging—as long as it is indeed their choice and not the choice of societal pressures and terrible TV commercials.




(The commercial also presents “having a kid when you still feel like a kid” as a noble thing to do, which is also pretty messed up—being a parent isn’t for everybody and arguably isn’t for most people, and those who choose to become parents should probably at least feel like young adults before popping the little ones out—but that’s a rant for another day.)

* * *

But here’s the part of the ad that annoys me the most: they’re commodifying courage. Or, more bluntly, they’re trying to convince us that buying shit is an act of courage.

Advertising has long tried to convince us that buying shit is a legitimate form of self-expression. In lieu of developing a personality, the clothes and the cars we buy can convey that for us. In lieu of making actual choices in our lives, we can sate our need for freedom by choosing from different, mostly identical brands of cola with varying caloric content. I know, that’s nothing new or revelatory.

But there’s something grotesque about an ad like this one that tells us that, in lieu of actually doing something courageous, we can just buy something really expensive. I’ve seen a lot of ads attempt to commodify all sorts of things—love, charity, hope, security, etc.—but I’m straining to think of an ad that explicitly said, “Be brave, buy this thing.”

Sen. John McCain has talked a lot about “defining courage down”—that is, devaluing courage by using it to describe all manner of acts that aren’t genuinely courageous. While McCain’s courage credentials are impeccable1, I disagree with some of what he says; I think he defines courage too narrowly, which unfairly cheapens some of the acts of everyday, mundane bravery that are rarely applauded. Where I think he and I would have no quarrel, though, is saying that buying shit is not courageous, and the idea that it is will simultaneously make people less able to recognize actual courage and less inclined to do actually courageous things.

People have to do genuinely courageous things all the time, and not necessarily in the big, taking-bullets, rescuing-people-from-a-fire sort of way; they move to new cities, they start and end relationships, they follow their dreams and help others do the same. It’s gross to see courage so nonchalantly trivialized. Fuck off, Quicken Loans.

* * *

It’s perhaps unfair to talk smack about an ad campaign without saying what I would’ve done differently. So just spitballin’ here, but maybe something like this?

We know buying a home can be scary. We remember what it was like seven years ago. 
Buying a home might not be right for everybody, and it might not be right for everybody right now. But we’ve come a long way since 2008, and if homeownership is something you’ve been thinking about, it may be worth taking another look into it. 
Talk to your financial advisor. Talk to your family. Figure out what your goals and resources are. And if you decide that buying a home is right for you, we want to help. Call us when you’re ready. Quicken Loans. USA, all the way, numba one.

Okay, it’s not my finest bit of copywriting, but better, right?


1All right, fine, but can we at least agree that his courage credentials were impeccable pre-Palin?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stouffer’s mac and cheese TV commercial by JWT New York is remarkably terrible

Hey everybody, let’s talk about this breathtakingly shitty commercial, called “Breathe,” from Nestlé’s Stouffer’s, promoting their high-saturated fat, low-taste macaroni and cheese frozen dinners:


The spot, a part of a campaign by J. Walter Thompson New York that seeks to boost weakening frozen food sales, begins with a teenage girl eagerly talking about her day with her parents, both of whom appear to be annoyed that their daughter is talking to them.

“They ran into Jeff and Ash—like, literally ran into him,” the girl recounts, as the father shoots a why-the-hell-is-she-talking-to-us look to the mother, who in turn flashes an insincere smile while not even disguising her lack of interest in her child. The daughter continues—“So awkward! He spilled a little soda on his shirt!”—as a voiceover plays over her:

This story had 30 minutes left, until Kim realized that Stouffer’s mac and cheese is made with real cheddar, aged to perfection for six long months. When you start with the best cheddar, you get the best mac and cheese.

The daughter is so enraptured by the hundreds and hundreds of milligrams of sodium in her serving of hastily-microwaved food-like substance that she stops chattering about stupid teenage girl nonsense like her thoughts and feelings and the people in life about whom she cares. The father, ever the smartass, asks her, “So what about Jessica?”—to which the daughter replies, “What about her?” And just like that, Operation Get My Daughter to Stop Sharing Things with Me is a resounding success.

This ad, ostensibly targeting parents who value dinnertime as a family event, is such a complete misfire that so thoroughly misunderstands its audience that I’m genuinely curious if JWT took some side cash from Kraft to bungle it. The reality is, parents who at least make an effort to make at-the-table, TV-free family dinners a thing want to listen to their kids talk about what’s on their minds. It is, in fact, the whole damn point of a family dinner. The problem isn’t that their teenagers are sharing too much; it’s that teenagers are sharing too little or nothing at all.

Here, the daughter is happily going into detail about her life—and true, it does sound like inconsequential, high school cafeteria minutiae. But it’s clearly important to her, and when someone—especially your own child—trusts you enough to share, the least you can do is be kind enough to listen without making faces. Besides, if your kid learns that you can’t be trusted to care about small stuff, why would she trust you with the big stuff?

In short, JWT at some point pitched a commercial that essentially said, “Stouffer’s: For terrible parents1 who want their kids to shut the fuck up,” and Stouffer’s inexplicably said, “OH MY GOD, CAN WE SIGN UP TWICE?” Well done, all.

* * *

Okay, I know I bang the gender critique gong more often than I intend on this blog, but watch another commercial in the campaign, called “Cell Phone”:


A teenage girl is looking at her cell phone. When she takes a bit of her lasagna, the purported deliciousness of her unit of food causes her to put her phone down. A voiceover explains: “As Katie puts her cell phone down for the first time all week, she realizes that Stouffer’s lasagna is topped with fresh cheese that browns beautifully. Fresh cheese and a touch of aged parmesan is [sic] what gives us our irresistible flavor. When you start with the best blend of cheese, you get the best lasagna.” Her cell phone buzzes; her parents look at their daughter expectantly; the daughter ignores the phone and says, “What?”

First of all, there’s some seriously mixed messaging here: in the first commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking to them; in the second commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking (or texting, I guess) to her friends. Which is it? Or do parents who serve Stouffer’s just want their kids to stop talking to everyone? Geez, get your pitch straight, guys.

But more importantly, why are they picking on teenage girls here? Look, I’m not saying that Stouffer’s is a part of some conspiracy to make the world into a phallocratic dongtopia or anything2, but two commercials in the same campaign that are predicated on stopping teenage girls from talking? Two commercials in the same campaign that presuppose teenage girls just talk about silly, unimportant stuff? Pretty lame, especially if we’re trying to get girls to Lean In or Step Up or Speak Out or what have you.

(It’s worth noting that ConAgra’s Manwich has a similar, and far superior, ad campaign by DDB West based on a lot of the same ideas, including a spot in which Manwich stops a teenage girl’s texting. The key difference is that, in Manwich’s ads, the parents actually seem to care about and enjoy the company of their kids—sons and daughters. And of course, they’re narrated by Ron Fucking Swanson.)

* * *

And as long as I’m taking swipes at Stouffer’s, take a look at the Nutrition Facts for Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, as presented on its website:


“Serving Size: 2. Servings Per Container: Not Given.” This is the opposite of helpful.

Just as confusing, despite each serving (which we know is exactly two somethings) containing 6 grams of saturated fat, the label still goes on to say that the product is “[n]ot a significant source of Saturated Fat.” Is this why Stouffer’s feels no shame about how unhealthful its foodesque offerings are—in their world, 6 grams of saturated fat apparently rounds down to insignificant? Huh.

Yes, yes, I know—this is probably the result of some sloppy coding. But still, get it together, Stouffer’s.


1I intentionally avoided making the comment that, if you’re feeding your kid frozen garbage, you’re probably a terrible parent anyway, so this ad knows its intended audience all too well—which, to be fair, would be an amazing defense of JWT’s incompetence here. But that’s not cool; plenty of parents would love to cook healthful meals for their kids, but they work two jobs and live in a food desert and are barely making ends meet and thus, Stouffer’s from Walgreens could really be the best of a limited set of bad options. Plenty of horrible parents make home-cooked meals for their kids; plenty of genuinely wonderful parents hate the fact that they’re feeding their kids frozen meatloaf and are working really hard for long hours to make sure they won’t have to in the future.

2There’s no need for a conspiracy; it already is, amirite ladies? No? Fine, whatever, I have mac and cheese and lube and pictures of a sexy Raccoon Mario girl, I don’t need you.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Plunging vertically, lightly clinking / It won’t attract anyone’s attention”

Congratulations to Apple! The company just posted the biggest quarterly profit—$18 billion—in world history.

To commemorate the achievement, here's a poem written by former Foxconn factory worker Xu Lizhi, published in the Foxconn employee newspaper.

A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground

He's a former employee because he, like many of his fellow Foxconn employees, killed himself last year after working under Foxconn's harsh and sometimes inhumane labor conditions in Shenzhen. He was 24.

While we're at it, we can also reread the New York Times's blockbuster 2012 story about Foxconn and the Apple supply chain that we all swore would make us give a shit, but then Apple came out with candy-colored iPhones the next year and we all totally wanted one. (Mine's yellow!)



It's cool, though, because that one dude who was on This American Life turned out to be a liar, which was just the perfect opportunity to stop caring.

So again—congrats, Apple!

Posted via the Blogger iOS app


Yes, Apple is far from the only company that uses Foxconn. But now that Apple is, for the moment, officially the most profitable company on the planet, it highlights how much could be done but isn't, and how few people genuinely care. (And since caring should only be measured by one's actions rather than feelings, I'm ashamed to say that I easily fall into the "don't care" camp.) And for all the talk about how Apple's $18 billion was built on good old-fashioned American innovation and gumption, it's worth remembering that it was also built on the despair and misery and sometimes deaths of Chinese laborers with few—or no—other options.

And while blame can be parceled out to Foxconn for perpetrating labor abuses and the Chinese government for turning a blind eye to such abuses, Apple and its customers deserve much of it, too. There's almost no demand for a bloodless iPhone, especially if it means paying more for it. And again, virtually every smartphone and tablet seller uses Foxconn or a Foxconn-esque supplier, but $18 billion means that Apple is in a uniquely powerful position to do something about it if they really wanted to. Or, as a former Apple executive put it in that New York Times article:
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

This McDonald’s coupon is so profoundly sad, it makes me want to cry

This McDonald’s coupon—and all that it implies—is so profoundly sad, it makes me want to cry.

"Valid February 14th only" "BURGER LOVERS" "49¢ Hamburgers & 69¢ Cheeseburgers" "Valid February 14th only" "Limit 10 per customer." "Must have coupon for redemption."


Notice that McDonald’s doesn’t even bother to use the phrase “Valentine’s Day.” It’s like McDonald’s is just saying, “You know the drill, lardass.”

And the worst part is, they cap the deal at ten hamburgers. Listen, if somebody is spending a part of their Valentine’s Day at a McDonald’s and they feel like eating more than ten hamburgers, it’s obvious it’s been a really shitty day. Just give them the fucking burgers, McDonald’s.


Anyway, this is the awkward part in which I mention the reason that I have the coupon so neatly torn out is because as soon as I saw it, I put it in my wallet because I’m about 99 percent sure I’ll be making use of it on Feb. 14. Yes, on Valentine’s Day, I will be lovin’ it because, sadly, no one’s lovin’ me. Okay, now I really am going to cry.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Abercrombie & ditched: Mike Jeffries is out as CEO; I dance on his professional grave

Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch on Dec. 9.

This is certainly good news, as Jeffries is notorious for being an asshole of impressive magnitude. Under his leadership, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in 2003 for employment discrimination for racist and sexist hiring practices; apparently, Jeffries loved him some white dudes, and this was reflected in who was hired for his stores and who got the best jobs once they were hired. (This is a polite way of saying that women, black people, Hispanics, and Asians had a tough time getting hired, and those that did often worked out-of-sight in the backroom.) The lawsuit ended in a settlement that included the company paying $40 million to discriminated workers and a revision of its hiring and promotion practices.

Jeffries also earned a lot of ire over some well-publicized remarks about who Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market is. From a 2006 interview with Salon:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

I mean, in a way, the candor is laudable, but yikes.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch’s falling profits and brand image had put Jeffries’s future with the company in jeopardy in recent years, so while his resignation happened quickly, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. To be fair, many mall clothing retailers are suffering, thanks in part to the recession and teens with lighter wallets and changing tastes.

But Abercrombie & Fitch—by far the priciest of what some1 call the Teen Mall Clothing Triple A, along with American Eagle and Aéropostale—was probably the most doomed in the wake of the recession. Abercrombie & Fitch appealed to kids who weren’t rich but wanted to appear rich; when the recession hit, the faux rich kids couldn’t afford their clothes anymore and the real rich kids weren’t buying their clothes from them in the first place. And once that became evident, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to don the moose.

So let’s take a moment to dance on the professional grave of Jeffries, a creepy dude with creepy fake blonde hair who appealed to the basest parts of American vanity and consumerism and still found a way to fuck it up. I hope he enjoys his retirement while he can, because once he passes, he will surely find himself damned to an afterlife where I presume a bunch of larger folks wearing Faded Glory-brand jean shorts and camo cargos will pelt him with copies of the September issue of Farm & Tractor Fashion for all eternity2.

* * *

In any case, Jeffries’s resignation reminded me of a small little project I did with a friend several years ago. We sneaked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and a Hollister at the mall and surreptitiously placed little activist flyers into their clothing. I thought we were being sneaky, until a customer asked us a question about a price, and we had to explain we don’t actually work there (“Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you guys handling the clothes and I just assumed—my bad”).

Granted, the flyers don’t reflect my best writing or my best thinking, and rereading them, they make me cringe a bit. But I still look at them fondly, because I liked this version of myself that cared strongly about things and devised weird and quirky plans to express my opinions. Let’s take a look at a sampling of my efforts:


This one took an anti-consumerism and anti-advertising angle and, in particular, the inanity of paying a company money for the right to advertise on your body. It’s interesting that I picked $59 as the upper-limit for ridiculous prices to pay for a logo graphic T-shirt.


Here was a flyer that took a feminist tack, albeit with some sloppy, inelegant writing (if you’re going to sound cavalier about eating disorders, then your writing better be coruscating). I believe I was floating the theory that teen clothing retailers intentionally making clothing sizes inconsistent to mess with girls’ body image and sense of self-esteem, which is ultimately beneficial for Abercrombie & Fitch and other image-based retailers—a theory that, as far as I know, has no evidence behind it, but kind of plausible, right? Also, I’m not sure where I saw “Independent Grrl” booty shorts, but I think it’d be hilarious to own a pair.


So basically, at some point, I thought, “You know how to get the message out in a way that resonates with my generation? Get some John fuckin’ Keats up in this shit!” This is proof that, had I majored in English, I would’ve been the most obnoxious person ever. But still, the last line is the beginning of a burn that could’ve been decent with a bit more workshopping.


1By “some,” I mean “I.” But it is a handy way of looking at the teen mall clothing retailer landscape, right? Aéropostale is the budget choice; American Eagle is moderately priced and of moderate quality; and Abercrombie & Fitch is the highest tier. (I don’t mean this as a dig, by the way. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Aéropostale—a gift from a family friend—despite my having graduated middle school. But it's a really comfortable shirt and I love it so there.)

2That’s probably a little too mean.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Oh, Crest

Crest offers "58% more free" to make its 2.9-ounce travel-size toothpaste 4.6 ounces.


Hey, Crest, I know you had good intentions here, but I don't think you understand why we have to buy the travel size in the first place.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dear Tombstone Pizza

Dear Tombstone Pizza,

I know you mean well and all, but if I have had the sort of day in which cramming a frozen pizza down my gullet seems like a reasonable nutritional choice, it is highly unlikely that a salad will be a part of my culinary experience.

Love,

Joe

P.S.: "1/4 = 1 SERVING"? That's cute.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fat girl costumes

Walmart apologized Monday after visitors to its website discovered its section for plus-size women's Halloween costumes was labeled "Fat Girl Costumes."


Walmart's social media team repeatedly tweeted,

This never should have been on our site. It is unacceptable, and we apologize. We worked quickly to remove this.

or some variation thereof to customers mentioning the incident on Twitter.

Our culture is one that makes "being fat" among the worst sins a woman can commit, and the cruelty and vitriol with which the word "fat" is hurled at overweight people has made the word much more pejorative than merely descriptive. So I completely get why people found a section bluntly called "Fat Girl Costumes" cringeworthy.

But the incident made me think of this amazing scene from the third episode of the past season of Louie, Louis CK's FX show.



In the scene, Louie talks with his date about the difficulty of dating. His date, sympathetic, says, "Try dating in New York in your late thirties as a fat girl."

Louie immediately insists that she's "not fat," and his date launches into a remarkable monologue that begins with, "Do you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? 'You're not fat.'"

So, it kind of feels like Walmart is saying "You're not fat."

I get why Walmart apologized, even beyond simple PR -- the word "fat" can be hurtful. And outside of corporate communications, I actually think there's value in what others might dismiss as political correctness; when you use a euphemism like "plus-size" instead of "fat," it can be a way of signaling, "I care about you and how you feel, so I'm going to use a word that I hope has less of a chance of hurting you." That's thoughtful, and thoughtfulness is good.

But I wonder if Walmart had tried the opposite strategy: What if Walmart kept the section titled "Fat Girl Costumes," and just said, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a fat girl, and we don't think it's an insult. If we change it, that's just us admitting that we think that being a fat girl is bad. So we're leaving it up."

Walmart PR is not in the business of social change, so there's no reason they'd take anything but the path of least resistance. But I'm curious what would really be more comforting to a girl who's overweight: a company apologizing because "fat" is so unacceptable, or a company shrugging because there's nothing wrong with "fat."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dove's hypocritical campaign for its “Go Sleeveless” deodorant creates insecurites

This post originally appeared on my old Joe Dellosa on Advertising blog.

► Dove is trying to invent a new, fake insecurity for women (unattractive underarms?) in order to shill its new Go Sleeveless Deodorant, completely blowing whatever credibility it had as a trustworthy brand that cares about the self-esteem of young women.

Last month, Dove (the beauty brand owned by Unilever, not the chocolate brand owned by Mars) made a stir with its Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant. The stir was not a positive one.

The deodorant—whose name is officially stylized as “Dove go sleeveless Deodorant,” with lowercase letters to emphasize casualness of going sleeveless or something—purports to beautify women’s underarms. In addition to its duties reducing underarm odor, Dove promises that Go Sleeveless will provide women with softer, smoother, and more attractive underarms in just five days.

According to a Dove press release dated April 4, Go Sleeveless was inspired by a 2010 study conducted by Unilever with market research firms Omnibus and TNS that supposedly found that 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive. Dove to the rescue, right?

Well, no. Many in the media quickly (and appropriately) called shenanigans on Dove’s new deodorant and its associated marketing campaign: Slate called it yet another instance in a long line of marketing efforts designed to foment fake insecurities in women and profit off selling them a cure. American Public Media’s Marketplace did a couple of person-on-the-street interviews with women who expressed no pre-existing concerns about their underarms.

And Stephen Colbert, who’s one of the media’s most astute advertising critics, had the definitive takedown of Dove during the April 13 episode of The Colbert Report. Colbert said “women have now learned that their armpits are hideous” with Unilever’s help and called the Dove’s new deodorant a “breakthrough shame-o-vation.”



Their points are all well-taken, and this should be pretty embarrassing for Dove. After all, even if we give Dove the benefit of the doubt and say that there are probably some women who do feel concerned about the appearance of their underarms, it's audacious for Dove to present its product as a solution to some sort of universal problem affecting virtually every American woman.

What hasn’t been mentioned quite as often is why this should be very embarrassing for Dove: with this advertising campaign—a campaign predicated on shamelessly fabricating a fictitious anxiety and foisting it upon women—Dove has completely blown its brand identity as the beauty brand that cares about the self-esteem and emotional well-being of young women. Oops.

 Cam-pain for real beauty

The last time a Dove campaign got any real attention was its much-lauded and award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. In the campaign, Dove criticized our culture’s perception of beauty as unrealistic and damaging to young girls with smartprovocative ads showing the artificiality of the beauty industry.

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


In other ads, Dove hired models more representative of average women, specifically eschewing thinner, perfectly airbrushed models. (Dove later got criticized when it turned out those models' photos were retouched, just like any other model's photos.)


But even without word of the entirely-unsurprising Photoshop job, it’s easy to see why Dove launching a Campaign for Real Beauty is at least a little hypocritical. Dove, after all, is still a beauty brand, and ultimately, its goal is to sell girls and women products that will make them prettier. And that just doesn’t jibe with a “feel good about the body you have” message—because, in essence, Dove is encouraging girls to feel good enough about themselves that they don’t need to buy all those products from Dove’s competitors, but not good enough that they can forego Dove products.

Don’t get me wrong—as an advertising cynic who takes an ardently feminist approach to advertising to and about women, I really like the general spirit of the campaign. But it’s entirely insincere for a beauty company to criticize the beauty industry while pretending it’s not a part of the problem. Would we give any credence to McDonald’s running ads on childhood obesity if they didn’t acknowledge the existence of Happy Meals?

And that’s the problem with the Campaign for Real Beauty—it’s co-opting a message of positive body image for the purpose of selling products that rely on girls and women feeling that their bodies are imperfect. To put it in starker terms, it’s commodifying girls’ self-esteem by turning it into just another marketing opportunity, and that’s particularly messed up. It’s one thing, after all, to be upfront and tell girls they’re ugly and that they should buy your product; it’s quite another to pretend to be empowering and supportive while passive-aggressively reminding girls that this great new Dove cream can really help them look great.

A couple of other criticisms of Dove’s campaign: There’s the implicit message that some women are more “real” than others, and that attractive or thin women don’t count as real. I’m pretty sure pitting groups of women against each other isn’t the most productive way to go about the whole empowerment thing.

Most damningly, there’s the stubborn little fact that Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns the Axe brand, which has no problem celebrating supposedly “fake” beauty in its ads. This was most ably demonstrated in Rye Clifton’s remarkable mash-up between a Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ad and various Axe ads.

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Lucky for Dove, those criticisms mostly didn’t stick, and the Campaign for Real Beauty is generally regarded as a major success for Dove. Its brand image as an empowering, pro-girl image is one Dove both values and actively cultivates—it has a “Dove Movement for Self-Esteem” website and brags about its Dove Self-Esteem Fund, which supports organizations like the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc.

In fact, as recently as April 4, Dove proudly tweeted that “[e]ach time you buy @Dove, you help us and our partners provide inspiring self-esteem programs to girls”—self-esteem that couldn’t possibly be belied by a tweet calling Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant a “must have accessory” if girls are considering going sleeveless.

 Poll dancing

So this brings us back to Dove’s new deodorant. Here’s the marketing challenge facing Dove: How do you create a fake insecurity, push it onto women, and sell them a product that will fix that insecurity, all without looking like complete hypocrites after all that Campaign for Real Beauty stuff?

The answer lies in that press release, which repeatedly notes the results of Dove’s supposed survey: “Perceptions of unattractive underarms have women shunning sleeveless attire,” the headline screams. According to the study, “almost all women feel their underarms are unattractive”—the exact figure being “93 percent,” as mentioned later in the press release.

Remember, press releases are nothing more than marketing departments’ attempts to get the attention of news outlets to do a story on their products, framed the way the marketing department would like. It may be too much to hope that a press release is simply reprinted verbatim (although, sadly, that does happen a lot), but a slyly-written release can nudge a reporter into unwittingly writing a puff piece for a product.

So why does Dove want to emphasize the results of its market research so badly? (You don't see Mountain Dew putting out press releases stating that “90 percent of men think that Baja Blast is the most extreme flavor” when they roll out a new flavor.) Because that’s the way it can get out of looking like a bunch of self-esteem-crushing hypocrites. By pretending that Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant is merely addressing a well-established problem rather than inventing one, Dove gets to shrug off criticism by saying, “Hey, we’re just responding to women’s needs.”

And it kind of worked. In a March 30 Wall Street Journal article, the “93 percent” statistic is repeated uncritically:

Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless, which hits U.S. stores this week, claims its formula of specialized moisturizers will give women better-looking underarms in five days. It was inspired by Unilever PLC research that found 93% of women consider their armpits unattractive.

To its credit, the Wall Street Journal does cite the company as the source of the finding, and three paragraphs of the story are used to explain that being seen as fabricating a need is a risky strategy. But the reporting does, without question, take the company’s word that the research inspired the product, rather than raise the possibility that this purported “research” could just be another component of the marketing campaign.

On the other hand, WNBC, the NBC affiliate in New York City, just went ahead and handed Dove free ad time. During WNBC’s LX New York (which is admittedly more an entertainment and lifestyle show but is still hosted by what appear to be journalists), the host conducted an interview with Dove spokeswoman and Gossip Girl star Jessica Szohr about the deodorant. And by “interview,” I mean “hackish shill-session.”

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Consider this example of sparkling journalism from the clip above:

WNBC Host: A lot of women, apparently 93 percent of them who responded—

Szohr: Feel uncomfortable.

WNBC Host: Yeah!

Szohr: Yeah.

WNBC Host: Which I was kind of surprised by.

Szohr: Yeah. And this product basically, if you—when you use it, within five days, you get softer, smoother underarms. So that way, when you use halter tops, or tank tops, or dresses that show that area, you can feel comfortable and not self-conscious.

WNBC Host: So if people join in this campaign, they get to go shopping with you, maybe?

The press release offered by Dove doesn’t offer too much in terms of details about the survey itself; this is the entirety of the information about the survey:

Through a Unilever, Omnibus and TNS Research International the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms. An online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women, ages 18-64 to gather insights on understanding the level of anxiety women feel about the appearance of their underarms.

And that’s not helpful. It’s journalistically unsound to cite poll results in news stories without seeing the complete questionnaire and results. Trusting a company to interpret results in an unbiased matter is foolish, and trusting a company’s poll as legitimate without at least giving it a once-over is just silly. This is doubly true when a poll itself is used as a cornerstone in an actual marketing campaign.

Plus, it’s unclear as to whether or not this poll is statistically valid. Dove wrote its press release suggesting some of its results can be generalized to the population (“93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive,” Dove writes, and not 93 percent of women surveyed), but other statistics use the qualification (“Over half … of the women in the study”; “1 in 3 of the women studied”). The online nature of the survey raises more questions about the poll’s validity, too—the validity of online polls is often questioned due to issues with random sampling and self-selection bias.

So, I emailed Unilever and a media contact at Edelman (Unilever’s PR firm) and asked for the full questionnaire, with the exact wording and order of the questions, as well as the full results. I also asked very specific questions about the poll’s methodology, including if a random sample was used, how participants were recruited for the poll, and what the poll’s margin of error was.

After some friendly emails back and forth, Annette Evans of Edelman wound up emailing me this statement:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the testing methodology of the go sleeveless: Uncovering Underarms study. This study was conducted by an independent third party market research supplier, to gather insights and provide statistically sound evidence.  This online, anonymous survey was taken by 534 women aged 18-64. The survey is statistically sound and adhered to industry-recognized guidelines and the highest quality standards.

Which is basically what the press release said. I emailed back, reiterating my desire for the full questionnaire and results and repeating my questions about methodology; alas, I didn’t hear back.

To be clear, I don’t blame Evans for sending an incredibly (and, more likely than not, deliberately) unhelpful statement. She’s just doing what her client likely instructed her to do. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were the first person to ask for the full questionnaire and results—that would explain a lack of even a boilerplate, “sorry, we’re not releasing that” refusal.

But here’s the thing. If Dove is willing to release a part of its market research—the part that helps its marketing effort—without letting reporters see the whole picture, it makes it look like Dove is actively hiding something. And if Dove is unwilling to answer very basic questions about the poll’s methodology, it makes the whole marketing campaign—as well as Dove’s brand image—look completely bogus.

(For a detailed explanation on why I think it's so important to get the full questionnaire and full results from Dove, please click here.)

 Why this matters

With its campaign for Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant, Dove appears to be trying to both manufacture and profit from the insecurities of its female customers. Dove is in the beauty industry, so that isn’t surprising.

It shouldn’t even be surprising that Dove is doing this after its whole Campaign for Real Beauty nonsense. A company that harshly criticizes the beauty industry while pretending that, somehow, it’s exempt from the criticism is hardly a paragon of consistency or self-awareness—and no number of donations to the Girl Scouts can change that.

What this should make abundantly clear is that “brand identity” or “brand personality” are meaningless concepts—or, at least, they should be. I don’t really get this tendency to anthropomorphize companies, but we should knock it off: by and large, companies exist to make money, and any personality they show is merely a means to that end. Nike isn’t an athletic company any more than Hallmark is a sentimental company. They’re companies. They make money. They assume whatever identity they feel best helps them make money.

And yes, this includes Dove. I don’t doubt that there are people who work for the Dove brand that care about the self-esteem and body images of young women; I would presume that many of its employees are women who have daughters. And I don’t doubt that many of its employees are earnest in their efforts to use the marketing resources of Dove to do a little good.

But we shouldn’t confuse those employees with the brand or the company. Dove makes its decisions based on what can help them sell enough body wash, deodorants, and creams to keep Unilever profitable. The Campaign for Real Beauty wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it'd help Unilever make money, just as Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant wouldn’t exist if Dove didn’t think it’d be profitable.

On one hand, I’m tempted to just shrug and chalk it up to the amorality of big business. But on the other hand, I’m pretty annoyed that Dove’s presumption that the cause of helping girls develop a healthy body image is a purchasable commodity, to be bought when it suits the brand’s marketing goals and dropped when it doesn’t.

The people at Dove who actually care about young women should be embarrassed by this campaign, and the people who actually believe that Dove cares about young women should be disabused of that notion.

And at the very least, nobody should be stressing out about their underarms that much. I mean, even before this product came out, Jessica Szohr hardly seems to be losing sleep over hers…


…so neither should you.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com, or tweet me @JoeDellosa.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Unilever’s Dove uses dubious “Go Sleeveless” poll to address criticism

This post originally appeared on my old “Joe Dellosa on Advertising” blog.

► Dove, criticized for inventing an insecurity for women, is justifying its new Go Sleeveless Deodorant by pointing to a study that says 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive but is refusing to release the actual poll or the full results.

This is an introduction of sorts to a fuller piece about Dove, its marketing campaign for the Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant, and the inconsistency of its "pro-self esteem" brand image. The expanded piece will appear either later today or tomorrow.

Last month, Unilever's Dove began a marketing campaign to promote its new Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant. The TV commercials for the deodorant promised women that they could have more beautiful underarms after using the product for just five days, which prompted many in the media to accuse Dove of attempting to invent a fabricated insecurity for women -- uh-oh, unattractive underarms! -- and profit from the resulting anxiety. Here's Stephen Colbert on the April 13 episode of The Colbert Report.



That a company in the beauty industry is trying to foment negative feelings in women about their bodies is certainly no surprise, but for Dove to do it seems hypocritical. Dove, after all, actively cultivates a reputation as a supportive, empowering brand for young women -- from its Campaign for Real Beauty to its Movement for Self-Esteem.

Possibly to fend off accusations of hypocrisy, Dove emphasized repeatedly in its press release about Dove Go Sleeveless Deodorant that the deodorant is the result of market research that found that "almost all women feel their underarms are unattractive" -- 93 percent, apparently. (This statistic was repeated unquestioningly in media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and WNBC.) One can imagine Dove arguing, poll in hand, that it's not inventing a new insecurity but merely addressing a pre-existing insecurity.

Unfortunately, the press release contained very little information about the poll itself -- no mention of the exact questions asked, how the poll was conducted, or any discussion of the methodology. It's even not clear if the poll is really statistically valid.

So, I asked Dove if I could take a look at the poll myself. I wanted to see the complete questionnaire, with the exact wording and exact order of the questions, and I wanted to see the complete results. I also had specific questions about the poll's methodology, including whether a random sample was used, how participants were recruited, and what the margin of error for the poll was. After a few emails back and forth, Dove, through its PR firm, declined to let me see the complete questionnaire and results and chose not to answer my questions about methodology. Apparently, I was to take Dove's word for it.

That, needless to say, is a bad idea. If a company is willing to mention some poll results -- presumably, the results that benefit the company -- in its press releases and other marketing materials, it should be willing to release the full results, with a full questionnaire, with a full explanation of the poll's methodology. To do any less isn't just shady and dishonest; it also insults the intelligence of that company's customers and undermine that company's credibility. More importantly, reporters -- especially those who cover advertising and media -- shouldn't let companies get away with it.

What follows below is kind of a Stats 101 mini-primer as to why seeing the questionnaire -- with the exact wording, exact sequence of questions, and full results -- is so important, and why, without it, even a statistically-valid poll can be completely dishonest and manipulative. Since Dove refuses to release any of that, I can only speculate as to how it got the results it did. For all I know, Dove asked fair questions that yielded legitimate results; however, until Dove decides to be more forthcoming, we'd do well to assume the worst.

 Exact wording

Consider the most prominent statistic in the marketing campaign, the “93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive” stat. It could be Dove just very plainly asked:

Do you think your underarms are unattractive?

A: Yes
B: No

Would 496 women out of 534 women in a supposedly representative sample say they have an active belief that their underarms are unattractive? That seems unlikely. So what if Dove actually asked this:

Do you think your underarms are attractive?

A: Yes
B: No

Only 38 women answering "yes" still seems low, but it’s a little more plausible than 496 actively affirming a belief that their underarms are unattractive. And in this case, if 496 women answered “no,” they’re not necessarily saying they think their underarms are unattractive; they just never thought of describing their underarms as particularly attractive. (It's like if someone asked me if I thought my index finger is attractive -- I'd answer "no," not because I think it's ugly, but because, as a normal index finger, it's neither attractive or unattractive.) Of course, without the original question phrasing, we just don't know.

 Full results

Now, what if the Dove poll asked the question in this manner (with hypothetical results in brackets):

How do you feel about your underarms’ appearance?

A: My underarms are always attractive. [7%]
B: Every once in a while, my underarms don’t look the best. [50%]
C: Occasionally, my underarms don’t look the best. [30%]
D: Often, my underarms don’t look the best. [10%]
E: My underarms are always unattractive. [3%]

I could imagine that, presented with these choices, only 7 percent of respondents affirming that their underarms are always attractive, with a vast majority picking less absolute choices. But if Dove wanted the statistic that 93 percent of women think their underarms are unattractive, it can just lump all the non-“always attractive” responses together -- it's a tricky interpretation of data that could be seen as technically true but is patently dishonest. Hence, the importance of full results.

 Exact sequence of questions

Finally, consider if before asking about their underarms’ appearance, respondents were asked a series of questions like these:

Have you ever noticed any bumps or pimples on your underarms?

Have you ever noticed how rough your underarms can be?

Have you ever noticed any underarm decoloration?

Do you ever experience soreness or itchiness on your underarms?

Can you recall any times when you’ve been embarrassed by your underarms?

Followed up with an innocent, “Do you think your underarms are unattractive?” Clearly, the responses would be more than a little skewed.

It’s like asking, “Do you think Senator Jones is lying about having an affair?,” “Do you agree with Senator Jones’s decision to defund the troops, possibly leaving them without body armor?,” and “Do you think Senator Jones’s health care vote was the result of bribery, as some have suggested?”—and then asking, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Senator Jones is doing?”

 In closing (for now)

I'll have much more on this in a fuller blog post about Dove, including an explanation of the inherent inconsistency of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty and why I believe its campaign for its Go Sleeveless Deodorant is embarrassingly hypocritical. (I'm holding off posting that in part to give time for Dove to provide a statement and, hopefully, the full poll; a rep at Dove's PR firm said they'd have something by today.)

In the meantime, it's important to note that Dove is far from the only company to conduct dubious polls, cite the results in its marketing materials, and then balk that the notion of releasing the full questionnaire and results.

For instance, last year, FedEx attempted to smear UPS with its "Brown Bailout" campaign, in which FedEx falsely accused UPS of asking for a government bailout. FedEx cited polls on its website and in its press releases claiming public support for FedEx's position, and FedEx director of corporate communication Maury Lane mentioned polls when he was interviewed about the issue. (He did so during his interview with me, too.)

So I asked to see the full questionnaire and results. Lane told me that I would have to get it from FedEx's pollster, Public Opinion Strategies. Public Opinion Strategies said that they weren't authorized to release that information, and only FedEx could release it. When I emailed and left messages with Lane relaying what the pollster told me, Lane stopped returning my calls and emails.

This may be obvious, but it's a good idea to be suspicious of any poll a company conducts and then cites in marketing materials. Companies don't do polls because they're just so darn curious about people; they do polls because it helps them somehow -- maybe to have snappy soundbites in interviews, or to make press releases sound more authoritative, or, in what I believe is Dove's case, to attempt to preemptively fend off criticism.

Regardless, whenever companies offer poll results in a marketing campaign, customers and (especially) journalists should get into the habit of automatically asking for the full questionnaire and the full results. And if a company refuses to do so, we should get into the habit of telling them that they are being dishonest and very likely lying by omission.

There's only one reason a company would feel comfortable releasing only some but not all of a poll's results: they are hiding something. That's not breaking news, but it's good to remember.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com, or tweet me @JoeDellosa.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hallmark’s V-Day slogan “I Love Us” was totally copied from (500) Days of Summer

This post originally appeared on my old “Joe Dellosa on Advertising” blog.

Developing story: Hallmark's Valentine's Day slogan, "I love us," appears to have been copied from the film (500) Days of Summer -- in fact, in the film, it's used by a greeting card writer in the context of writing greeting cards. Is it a coincidence or plagiarism?

Update on February 4, 2011 at 4:52 p.m.: Hallmark said via its Twitter account that Leo Burnett, the company's agency of record, is responsible for the "I love us" commercial. I've updated the story to reflect this.
 
The folks at Hallmark have unveiled their cute little slogan for this year's Valentine's Day: "Valentine's Day is for saying 'I love us.'" Here's their 2011 Valentine's Day commercial, which, according to a tweet from @HallmarkPR sent to me after I asked, was produced by the company's agency of record, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett:

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


As the voiceover says:

Valentine's Day is not for saying "I love you." It's for saying, "I love us." I love who we are together, how we've grown -- from our nervous conversations to the one we two have become. Valentine's Day is for taking the time to say, "I love us."

And here's a screenshot of their Valentine's Day promotional webpage:


Adorable stuff! Or, at least, it would be if Valentine's Day hadn't become a crassly artificial holiday that seeks to commodify our emotions and homogenize the way we express our love as a means to boost corporate profits, while fomenting awkward, hurtful feelings among couples and mopey misery among singles. (Why, yes, I am single this Valentine's Day, how'd you know?)

Anyway, I'll save my rantings about why Valentine's Day is Evil and Ruins Everything for another day, but for now, I'll say this about Hallmark's "I love us" campaign -- they totally stole that line from the movie (500) Days of Summer. Check out this screenshot from the movie:


(500) Days of Summer documents the failed relationship -- from start to finish, though not in that order -- between Tom Hansen (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (played by Zooey Deschanel). Tom's a hopeless romantic, Summer's a cynic about love, and they meet at the office where Tom works as a greeting card writer. Hijinks ensue (and by "hijinks," I mean "95 minutes of brutal relationship honesty").

About a quarter into those 500 days, when Tom and Summer's relationship is going swimmingly, Tom is filled with such giddy euphoria about Summer that he becomes a font of greeting card creativity. One of those bursts of creativity that's met with delight from his co-workers? "I love us."

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.
If the YouTube link isn't working, click here to watch it on Bing.


Okay, admittedly, "I love us" isn't exceptionally unique, and it's certainly possible that the ad team behind the slogan didn't pilfer it from the movie. But, c'mon -- (500) Days of Summer is an extremely well-regarded movie about a greeting card writer, and presumably, "folks who work for a sentimental greeting card company" is as about a perfect target audience for the film as I can imagine. I find it very, very hard to believe that nobody thought, "Hey, wait! 'I love us' and greeting cards -- sounds familiar!"

For what it's worth, if you Google search "I love us," a reference to the clip linked above is the third result.


And if anybody on the ad team had bothered to begin typing "I love us" into Google, they'd see Google eagerly suggesting (500) Days of Summer:


I should note that I'm far from the only person to make the (500) Days of Summer connection; searching for "hallmark 500" or "hallmark summer" on Twitter offers dozens of tweets using words like stole, rip-off, unoriginal, and swag jacker.

And as far as I can tell from searching, the first person to make the connection on Twitter was @createajess on Jan. 31. @aaronwill also said the campaign was "very original" #sarcastically on Jan. 31, but it's not clear if he was just saying so because of the movie or just in general.

Anyway, with real news happening, it's more amusing than scandalous, although Leo Burnett probably ought to be at least a little embarrassed that their creative integrity is being thrown into doubt with such a high-profile campaign. And besides, if Leo Burnett -- on behalf of a company like Hallmark whose name is often used pejoratively to refer to shallow, commercialized sentimentalism -- wants to steal from a movie, there are few better films from which to do so than a movie as honest and real as this one.

I sent an email to Hallmark through its media inquiry form asking for comment, but I haven't received a response yet. To the credit of whoever operates Hallmark's Twitter account, I received a reply a mere seven minutes after asking them via Twitter what ad agency did their commercial.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com or tweet me @JoeDellosa. And yes, this might be a sign that I've seen this movie way too many times.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some of Allstate’s “Mayhem” ads are strangely sexist, misogynistic

This post originally appeared on my old “Joe Dellosa on Advertising” blog.

► Allstate is trying to step away from its more traditional advertising to be more “evocative” with its “Mayhem” ad campaign, but the insurance company produced a couple of commercials that are strangely contemptuous of young women.

Update on Sept. 29, 2010 at 4:21 PM: This article was republished on Jezebel today; apparently, a friend who said that she was going to email the link to Jezebel wasn't kidding. In any case, welcome to Jezebel readers! I'm enjoying reading all the comments, including the ones that disagree with the analysis (of which there's plenty).

Just one note: A commenter asked why I was using the phrase "typical teenage girl" when the "Pink SUV" ad doesn't say that; while the :30 spot doesn't use the phrase, the :15 spot does. (The :15 spot is linked within the article.)


Update on Oct. 17, 2010 at 6:30 PM: Allstate has released a new TV spot in its "Mayhem" ad campaign that mocks teenage boys. The commercial, "Lawn Game," was posted on Allstate's YouTube channel on Oct. 14. Please click here for my placeholder update while I work on posting a full follow-up.

In July, Allstate launched its “Mayhem” series of advertisements. Dean Winters, known for his role as Ryan O’Reilly on the HBO prison drama Oz, plays Mayhem, a sort of personification of all that can go wrong for a car owner— a “random windstorm” that causes a branch to fall onto your car, a “filthy rich executive” who sues you after he slams on his brakes and you rear-end him, and so on.

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


The message, as the disembodied voice of Dennis Haysbert tells us at the end of each commercial? Mayhem is supposedly everywhere and takes all different forms, and Allstate can protect you from mayhem.

They’re mildly amusing ads that probably wouldn’t register too strongly on anybody’s radar—except that, in two of the commercials (“Pink SUV” and “Jogger”), Allstate and its ad agency, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett, decided to take strangely mean-spirited, contemptuous swipes at young women. To put it plainly, the ads are misogynistic—or, at least, strikingly disrespectful of young women.

That a company treats women with disdain in its advertising isn’t particularly noteworthy; tons of commercials for beer and body sprays belong to the “women are stupid sluts with big breasts” school of copywriting. (And yes, it’s totally a safety school.) However, that a company as benign as Allstate, selling a product as insipid as car insurance, feels comfortable taking cheap shots at young women in a national ad campaign suggests a normalization of sexism that is noteworthy. And it’s worth exploring—even for those who are, at this very moment, rolling their eyes and muttering about oversensitivity and the PC police.

 Pink SUVs and stereotypes

Here’s the first TV spot, “Pink SUV,” in which Mayhem is a “typical teenage girl” driving the titular pink SUV. See if you can spot all the teenage girl stereotypes!

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Here are the ones I found:

  1. Girls are materialistic (pink SUV, pink sunglasses, shiny cell phone).
  2. Girls are chatterboxes who gossip all the time.
  3. Girls can’t concentrate on driving and will text while behind the wheel.
  4. Girls’ conversations are stupid and vapid.
  5. Girls bastardize the English language with their dumb slang (“BFF,” “OMG”).
  6. Girls have no loyalty to each other (Becky kissed Mayhem’s crush).
  7. Girls are easily “emotionally compromised.”
  8. Girls hate other girls (“OMG, Becky’s not even hot”), and their friendships with each other are shallow and transient.
  9. Girls can’t drive and will hit parked cars.
  10. Girls have no sense of responsibility or ethics and have no qualms about hitting and running.

Allstate is particularly proud of this spot. On the official Facebook fan page for Mayhem, Allstate notes that Mayhem is, emphasis mine, “everything from a moody teenage girl to a wild deer out chewing on leaves.”


I’m not interested in debating whether or not these stereotypes are true, mostly because it’s pointless to try to prove or disprove stereotypes. Stereotypes are stereotypes usually because they happened to ring true to some people, and I don’t deny that there are some girls who do hate other girls or drive poorly.

But nobody who’s not a jackass would seriously assert that every single girl in the world is materialistic, gossipy, or awful at driving (unless you’ve met every single girl in the world, you wouldn’t know), so usually anecdotal evidence is trotted out to “prove” that these stereotypes are true for “most” girls—in other words, evidence in the form of, “Every girl I know is x, so while I’m not saying all girls are x, you have to admit, it’s the norm.” But if you take that seriously (and let’s be honest—even if we don’t admit it, we all tend to weigh our own anecdotal evidence heavily in our minds), there are two problems.

First, there’s sampling bias—bias that occurs when the people on which you’re basing your conclusions about a group aren’t representative of that group. If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to believe that all girls are materialistic, you’re more likely—consciously or unconsciously—to be drawn to girls who are materialistic. People are drawn to those who prove their assumptions correct, after all; dealing with challenges to one’s assumptions can be taxing.

And second, there’s confirmation bias—selectively looking at evidence that proves our beliefs, while ignoring evidence that doesn’t. In other words, if you’re inclined to believe that girls are bad drivers, you’ll remember every time a girl nearly hits you, but you’ll ignore all the times a guy nearly hit you—or, at the very least, not hold it against guys in general. Although I’m hesitant to cite the webcomic xkcd (which has its own issues), this strip, titled “How It Works,” is particularly illustrative:


Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t a single girl who’s a bad driver or materialistic or easily emotionally compromised; indeed, I’ve known girls who are all those things. But I’ve known guys who are all those things, too, and so have most people.

I asked Raleigh Floyd, a spokesman for Allstate, about the stereotypes used in the Pink SUV ad. He said that he couldn’t comment specifically on the stereotypes being used because he wasn’t on the creative team, but he defended using stereotypes in general.

“I know that, for the majority for the campaign as a whole, the goal was to portray scenarios that the viewing public would recognize,” Floyd said. “And to some extent, that would rely on some stereotypes, perhaps, or else how else do they recognize them?”

How else? Probably with copywriting that isn’t lazy and doesn’t needlessly marginalize an entire group of people with well-worn clichés that help justify disrespect and contempt towards them. But sure, if you’re going for a cheap laugh and you can’t be bothered to do your job well, by all means, do the whole “pick on girls” thing.

(I called and emailed Leo Burnett several times to try to arrange an interview with someone at the agency about the campaign. The calls went unreturned, and after being sent some friendly yet ultimately unhelpful emails, I stopped getting responses.)

 Acceptable targets

The truth is, young women—and particularly teenage girls—are more or less “acceptable targets” in our culture and particularly in advertising. That is to say, you can pick on teenage girls and mock them in a way that doesn’t register the same instant, universal disapproval as mocking most other groups.

For example, could Allstate run an ad with Mayhem saying he’s a “typical black driver” who gets distracted by someone selling fried chicken and watermelons? Or an ad in which Mayhem is a “typical Asian driver” who is congenitally incapable of operating a car? Absolutely not—the ads would be correctly labeled as racist, and Allstate would fear blowback from consumers.

And yet, Allstate doesn’t fear blowback when it takes a shot at young women. Why? Ostensibly because it’s culturally okay to mock them. (You might be tempted to argue that Allstate wouldn’t fear blowback from mocking men, but that’s an apples-to-oranges argument. Men haven’t faced the same historical discrimination as women, and men have more institutional power and influence in our culture than women.)

I know this is sounding dangerously close to White Knighting, but it’s not. (At least, I don’t think it is, though you’re more than welcome to call me out if you disagree.) I don’t think girls or women are fragile little flowers that need perpetual care and rescuing, and they’re fully capable of taking care of themselves.

But consider this: What does being a “typical teenage boy” mean? Only one negative stereotype—horniness—comes to mind, right? And it’s not even that negative; there’s a sort of an “atta boy!” playfulness implied. But a whole range of criticisms—shallow, stupid, petty, emotional—spring up when you think of a “typical teenage girl.”

When girls are told, over and over again (in real life, in the media), that being a “typical teenage girl” means being shallow, stupid, petty, and emotional, what does that do to a girl’s self-respect? How does that affect how society treats girls? How does that affect how girls treat themselves? There’s something messed up about telling girls that they’re supposed to be bitchy, and then complaining when you run into bitchy girls.

In the Mayhem ad campaign, Mayhem personifies either non-humans (a poorly-secured satellite disha wild deer) or narrowly-defined, absurdist caricatures (a rich CEOa navigationally-challenged fourth-string quarterback). But “young women” aren’t non-humans, nor are they narrowly-defined as a group. Allstate is then saying, without any qualification, that women, by virtue of their inherent womanness, are mayhem when they’re near a car.

Raleigh Floyd said Allstate has received feedback about sexism in the ads but wouldn’t comment as to whether or not Allstate is planning to pull the ads. When I asked Floyd if he thought the concerns over sexism in the ads were reasonable, he said, “I don’t think it’s the company’s place to decide whether someone else’s opinion is reasonable or not”—which, by the way, isn’t a we disagree, but they’re reasonable, or at least a yes, we understand the concerns.

“I think the bigger point here is, while we are certainly trying to evoke, we aren’t trying to offend,” Floyd said. But regardless of whether or not Allstate was trying to offend, did they seriously not see how people might view this as pretty messed up?

(By the way, I’ve heard kind of a half-assed defense of the ad in the form of, “They’re not making fun of all teenage girls, just the shallow ones.” First of all, no—the ad clearly says “teenage girl” with no caveats. Second, I doubt “They’re not making fun of all Asians, just the ones that can’t drive” would be a legitimate excuse. But maybe most importantly, girls should be allowed to like so-called girly things—the color pink, boys, BFFs—without being dismissed out of hand, and without having to feel the onus of “defending your sex” on their shoulders.)

 No body’s perfect

Here’s the other TV spot, “Jogger,”  in which Mayhem is “a hot babe out jogging.”

Can't see the ad? Click here to watch it on YouTube.


Mayhem, decked out in pink once again, says she’s jogging to “make sure this”—pointing to her body—“stays a ten.”A guy drives by and is so distracted by the jogger that he crashes into a lamppost.

First, nice touch implying the only reason young women go out jogging is to make sure she can maintain a hot body. Could she be jogging for her health? Or maybe she wants to stay in shape because she’s into sports? Nah—it must be because she’s vain.

But more importantly, why is the jogger “mayhem” in this case? Isn’t the real “mayhem” the guy who’s so easily distracted and so creepy that he leers at a woman long enough to crash into a lamppost? It would seem that that ad isn’t just more logical; the copy practically writes itself (“I’m a desperate teenage boy who gets off on spandex,” Dean Winters could snarl). But no, for whatever reason, Allstate and Leo Burnett went out of its way to, once again, make a young woman at fault for causing an accident.

Or more precisely, in this ad, it’s the young woman’s body that’s at fault. It’s actually an interesting switch-up; usually in advertising, young women are told that they should feel bad for not having an attractive body. In this ad, young women should feel bad for having a body that’s too attractive—look too hot and you cause accidents, and some poor innocent guy’s cut-rate insurance won’t cover it. In conclusion, all young women should be ashamed of their bodies. Or something.

What’s even more disconcerting about the ad is that it stealthily (and, giving Allstate and Leo Burnett the benefit of the doubt, unintentionally) perpetuates the idea that women should be instinctively blamed for bad things happening because of how they’re dressed. After all, implied in the ad is the idea of, “It’s not my fault, look at what she’s wearing!”—an excuse that’s been used to justify all manner of sexual harassment and assault.

 Why this matters

I’m not saying Allstate is singlehandedly making the world a harder place for young women, or that the company is some sort of champion of misogyny. Indeed, sexism is a complicated problem with countless factors at play. But these ads for Allstate aren’t helping.

And the fact that they’re coming from Allstate isn’t helping, either. As mentioned earlier, you sort of expect this from ads for beer or body sprays, and it’s received accordingly—oh, it’s coming from Axe or Miller Light, of course they’re being asses. It’s not that it’s okay when it comes from Axe or Miller Light; it’s just that it’s understood that their advertising shouldn’t be interpreted as an indication of what’s acceptable.

Allstate, on the other hand, is an insurance company. Car insurance is boring, Allstate isn’t edgy, and this is more or less a general audience campaign. Accordingly, when Allstate says that young women are dumb and vain in an ad campaign, it carries a lot more weight in terms of indicating what reflects mainstream thought. It’s the difference between Maxim magazine running a cover that says “Slutty girls are great!,” and People magazine running it.

Raleigh Floyd said that the Mayhem campaign was intended to try to reach specifically young adults, aged 25 to 34. Considering that everybody needs car insurance, it’s a strange strategy to run ads that mock such a broad group (young women), especially when that group is a part of your target demographic.

And the weird thing is, it’s not as if Allstate is a company that’s known for sexism. The company’s charitable arm, the Allstate Foundation, even has a domestic violence program among its core concerns. How can a company that demonstrably cares about domestic violence—a problem that stems in part from a heinously warped view of women—run ads that help warp views towards women? (I’m not saying that seeing an ad that makes fun of a teenage girl will indisputably lead to domestic violence; that’s ridiculous. Again, though—it doesn’t really help either.)

This criticism isn’t unique; indeed, several feminist blogs have criticized Allstate for the ads, and rightfully so. The ads are lazy, cheap shots that join countless more lazy, cheap shots. It’s not healthy for girls and women to be constant targets for this stuff, and it’s not healthy for us as a society to be okay with it. Allstate and Leo Burnett should be embarrassed.

 About your writer

Feministy critiques of advertising seem to invite questions about the author’s intentions, so I’ll be upfront with you all, and you can decide for yourself. You can skip this if you don’t care.

I’m a straight guy (and pro-LGBT rights). I consider myself a feminist (though I don’t make a habit of loudly announcing it because doing so is reminiscent of the guys who minor in Women’s Studies in a ill-conceived attempt to get laid). I think of myself as a feminist of the “feminism is the radical notion that women are people” mold; accordingly, I don’t think that women are more special, enlightened, or otherwise better than men (although that’s kind of a straw man, because I don’t know any feminist, male or female, who does). A pessimist might frame this as “women are just as bad as men”-style feminism.

I think girls’ and women’s body images, intelligence, and worth are specifically and pervasively questioned and attacked in the media (and particularly advertising), and I think that has to have some sort of cumulative effect. Thus, it’s worth calling out whenever it happens. On the other hand, one of my favorite movies is (500) Days of Summer, which I’ve heard totally blows my feminist cred. I also love Juno, but I don’t know what that does with said cred. (Though my friends have said I love Juno because I think “Ellen Page is hot,” which, well yeah, but it’s a good movie and she’s talented, damn it.)

Also, hypocrisy alert: I arguably used a teenage girl stereotype in this op-ed I wrote for my college paper last June with the line about BFF charm bracelets. Oops.

So there you go—feel free to write in with accusations of White Knighting or oversensitivity or faux feminism, or if you think I have bad taste in movies. Other comments are welcome, too.

You can email me at jdellosa@gmail.com. And for what it’s worth, I minored in education, so there.