Showing posts with label gender. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gender. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection

Hey Arnold!, the classic Nickelodeon animated TV series about a kid growing up in the big city, gave us many gifts during its witty and often melancholy five-season run, not the least of which is what I like to call the Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection.

The theory comes from “Arnold & Lila,” an episode in the show’s third season. In it, a series of Three’s Company-esque misunderstandings results in Arnold realizing he has feelings for his friend Lila, who, by the end of the episode, no longer feels the same way about him. (“I really admire you, and I treasure our friendship ever so much,” Lila says, as a way of letting Arnold down softly. “We can still be good friends, can’t we?”)

Afterward, while talking to another one of his friends about what happened, Arnold makes this astute observation:

It’s funny. When you like someone, and they don’t really like you back, it’s not so bad. But when you really like them-like them, but you find out they just like you, it hurts.

Here’s the theory in dank meme form, which I definitely didn’t make when a girl definitely didn’t turn me down for a date, because I’m definitely not a grown-ass adult who turns to late 1990s cartoons to seek comfort and wisdom when I’m feeling bummed.



It’s worth breaking down why this is true. When someone rejects you outright—not only do they not want to go out with you, but they don’t want anything to do with you—it sucks in the moment, but it’s easy to console yourself. They’re rejecting me because they don’t really know me, you can think. If they knew all the things that make me unique, if they knew my personality, my sense of humor, my quirks, then maybe it’d be different. In short, they just don’t have enough information, so they’re not rejecting me; they’re rejecting their incomplete idea of me—which, again, still kind of sucks, but you don’t take it too personally.

But when someone “partially” rejects you—that is, they like you, but they don’t like you-like you—that shit stings. You can’t hide behind the idea that they just don’t know you, because they obviously do: they like you! They see what you have to offer, and they totally appreciate it! They want you in their life—but not in that way. For whatever reason, it’s not quite enough for them to return your feelings. Why Arnold is right when he says it hurts is simple: they’re not rejecting you because they don’t know you; they’re rejecting you precisely because they do know you. (And double ouches if, in your heart of hearts, you know they’re making the right call—but that’s a different discussion for another day.)

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection is often cited as evidence of the insidiousness of the “friend zone,” which is annoying for two reasons: the feelings Arnold is describing are a little more nuanced than the friend zone, and, more significantly, the friend zone is bullshit.

* * *

When I was in high school, the friend zone referred to the belief that if you’ve been friends with someone for too long, a romantic relationship was impossible. Nobody ever seemed to have the exact figures for how long was too long, probably because it was, again, bullshit.

It’s not that by being “just friends” for a week, or a month, or whatever other arbitrary length of time, you magically become undateable; we had several counterexamples all around us of people who were good friends first, then started dating. Instead, what’s happening is that, in that time in which you were just friends, your friend learned something about you, your personality, or your beliefs that made you unattractive to or incompatible with them—or, perhaps, something that seemed charming or intriguing at first became less so after repeated exposure to it. There’s also the harsh possibility that many find difficult to face: your friend was never attracted to you in the first place and at no point were you ever a romantically viable prospect.

Curiously, the idea was embraced by both guys and girls, with guys generally being the friend zoned and girls being the friend zoners. (The friend zone seems to be a pretty heterosexual—and, indeed, heteronormative—concept.) For guys, this provided a way to save face when he was rejected; it’s not that he was unattractive, but rather, the inviolable laws of the friend zone are what they are. For girls, this provided a gentle way to reject a guy—either because they wanted to avoid upsetting the guy by offering a real reason (“you too ugly, bro”), or occasionally because they didn’t want to think of themselves as the type of person who’d reject a guy based on, say, the fact that he too ugly, bro (“I’m not shallow; it’s just the friend zone”). It was an exercise in self-delusion, with both guys and girls having incentives to perpetuate it.

That, obviously, is less than ideal. (Are we enabling guys whose egos are so fragile that they have to comfort themselves with lies? Are we conditioning girls to avoid expressing what they really think to make guys feel better about themselves? Are we telling girls it’s better to be nice than to be honest?) In practice, though, it played out harmlessly enough: the friend zone was accepted and unchallenged, and the rejected guy could, after licking his wounds, go back to being friends with the girl. Encouragingly, guys who were purportedly friend zoned generally didn’t blame the girl (“Damn bitch friend zoned me!”) but rather themselves (“My bad, I waited too long”), which helped make guys and girls less adversaries in dating and more fellow travelers bound by the same principles.

* * *

Of course, my high school was different from other high schools. We didn’t have lockers. Nobody went to prom, even when MTV decided to record and humiliate us. Our AP calc class was as frequently about math as it was about playing Monopoly while watching the 2000 Nicolas Cage film The Family Man, apparently the only DVD our media center had. And I’m pretty sure at least a part of our campus was a repurposed Waffle House, which would explain both the smell and the despair.

This wasn't a scientific poll, but I'd say it captured our collective sentiment nicely.

So I’m not sure if I grew up with a different understanding of the friend zone, or if the definition has changed. But now, when a man complains about the friend zone, it usually takes on a much creepier vibe: I was so nice to her, and that bitch friend zoned me! She was just leading me on! Typical woman friend zoning me because I’m nice, yet she’ll probably go out with some asshole who won’t treat her right!

Obviously, some caveats: There are women who do lead men on intentionally and manipulate emotions for their own benefit (hey, free dinner!), because women are people and some people are shitty. And yes, there are women who find niceness unattractive and assholery attractive, because women are people and some people have weird issues. But I feel confident that these cases don’t represent the majority of friend zone whining.

(Also, as an aside, my pet hypothesis is that being nice isn’t so much an inherently attractive thing, but rather an intensifier if you already find someone attractive. Like, niceness won’t do much if someone doesn’t think you’re cute, but if you’re cute and it turns out you’re nice, it makes you that much cuter. It is in this way that niceness is a lot like eyeglasses, tattoos, and impeccable grammar.)

This mindset comes from the idea that if a man does enough nice things for a woman, he’s entitled to her time, her affection, or her body. In this view, a woman isn’t a person with her own desires, but rather a puzzle to be solved and a prize to be won. Or not even that—she’s a product to be purchased, which he deserves because he paid for it with his niceness. This is a point rebutted by an oft-memed quote misattributed to Sylvia Plath:




This betrays a serious lack of empathy. All of the men bemoaning how nice guys get friend zoned would disagree that, if a woman he found repulsive baked him enough cookies or gave him enough gifts, he should ignore his own desires because she earned him and that overrides his feelings. All of these men would recognize that they get to decide with whom they go out and have sex, and “because she’s really, really nice and really, really likes you!” isn’t sufficient for them to set aside their own preferences.

But they generally don’t extend that same courtesy to the women they want to bone. And I get it—you’re the main character in your own story, and she’s your perfect dream girl. Super Mario Bros. taught you that if you do the right sequence of things, you earn the right to some Tanookie Mario with Princess Toadstool, even if she has expressed no interest in you and your shoes smell like squished Goomba.

However, she’s the main character in her own story, too, and just like you want someone you think is gorgeous and lovely, so does she. And you might not be that person, no matter how nice you are. It’s okay. It happens sometimes. You just have to deal.

* * *

One of the worst things about the friend zone is that it makes some men embarrassed of their friendships with women. Being friend zoned is seen as a mark of emasculation, and since there’s supposedly no other purpose of being friends with a woman besides having sex with her, every platonic friendship with a woman is viewed as an implied rejection and thus a failure. Every act of kindness shown to a woman that doesn’t result in her ripping off her clothes isn’t just a waste but a pathetic act of self-torture (“You picked her up from the airport? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL 100! She had a bad day at work and you listened to her for a few minutes without getting any ass? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL INFINITY!”). These men will have fewer friendships with women, which means they’ll have fewer women they care about, which means they’ll be more accepting of whatever misogynistic nonsense they read on some creepy subreddit. And the cycle of toxicity will self-perpetuate.

The reverse happens, too. If women are constantly suspicious of their male friends’ motives, they may decide that male platonic friendships are more trouble than they’re worth. Who wants to deal with the hurt when someone you thought was a really great friend just wanted to have sex with you? Who wants to be accused of leading someone on or berated for being a typical woman who can’t appreciate a nice guy?

(Also, what’s the deal with people saying that if a man is sexually attracted to a female friend, it’s proof that he’s not really her friend, or that male-female friendships are impossible? If a woman is attractive, there’s a decent chance that at least some of her male heterosexual friends would be pretty stoked to sleep with her. But if she doesn’t want to sleep with them, it’s entirely possible that they’re okay with that and value and appreciate her friendship anyway. In fact, it’s kind of fucked up that “is sexually attracted to a woman” and “genuinely values a woman’s friendship” are often accepted as mutually exclusive concepts—what the hell does that say about us? In any case, as the great Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby says, it can be two things.)

* * *

During the rest of Hey Arnold!’s run, Arnold still crushed on Lila. And Lila continued to view Arnold as purely a platonic friend, much to his chagrin. But Arnold didn’t accuse Lila of leading him on or complain that Lila was a stupid bitch who friend zoned him because she couldn’t see how nice of a guy he was.

Yes, asymmetrical affection sucks for the reason Arnold articulated perfectly, but Arnold found a way to deal with it without being a self-pitying asshole. As with most things in life, we should all be like Arnold.

Or maybe Gerald. That dude has a field named after him and has some pretty rad hair. Let’s be like him, too.


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 NestlĂ©’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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a feminist video game critique won me a Game Boy Advance & exposed my areolae

When I was in high school, I entered a contest on Bonus.com and won a fun prize package that included a Game Boy Advance, a copy of Metroid Fusion, a Bonus.com mouse pad, and a Bonus.com T-shirt made of material so thin that the slightest perspiration resulted in my man-nipples being visible for all to see. (I wore the T-shirt all of twice before it earned a spot at the bottom of a forgotten drawer.)

This triumph isn’t as impressive as it sounds (and I say that fully aware of the fact that it doesn’t sound impressive at all)—Bonus.com was a website containing dumb little Macromedia1 Shockwave games aimed at bored kids aged eight to ten, and the contest was a writing competition. Entrants—who, again, were mostly kids in elementary school—submitted a 100-or-so-word review of their favorite video game, and each week for ten weeks, the Bonus.com judges picked the best one to reward with the prize-package.

So, yes, I totally kicked the ass of some eight-year-old who thought he could win a video game, and I’m obviously a terrible person, because: Hah hah, no brand new Game Boy for you, loser! Try again when you’ve mastered subject-verb agreement!

In my defense, most of the other reviews sucked. I mean, I know there’s only so much you can do in 100 words, especially when you haven’t reached puberty, but, c’mon. Look at this winning review:

Metroid Fusion.... how I love thee.... your graphics are so crisp, your loading speed incredible, and your controls second to none. But neigh! Thy be flawed! Thy map is annoying, and thy enemies basic and non-diverse! And, lo-and-behold, thy experience to quick and easy.... but wait! There is redemption! Boss battles are huge and amazing, and thy save system is spectacular! Thy can also be slow and boring at times..... but the 60% percent of game time whereupon action is constant, thy is fast and furious, without a hint of the Devil's slowdown. Metroid Fusion... how I love thee....... 9/10

Okay, let’s ignore the inexplicable use of archaic English to review a futuristic science fiction game. In fact, let’s ignore the fact that he’s inconsistent about it (“your graphics”?) and he seems to think that “thy” was an all-purpose old-timey pronoun (“Thy be flawed”).

This kid reviewed Metroid Fusion for a contest whose prize is Metroid Fusion. That means he presumably already owns this game and just wanted another copy of it for no reason at all. What a selfish bastard! He’s almost as big a bastard as some high school kid crashing an elementary school kid contest!

So, here was my contribution, posted under the username BigDog345:

Super Metroid for the SNES is one of the greatest games ever created. It focuses on Samus Aran, a bounty hunter who must travel to a variety of different worlds, battling aliens with an array of different weaponry. Blasting aliens becomes an addiction, as the vividly colored locales and easy to learn controls made the game come alive. 
But the most impressive part of this game is that Samus is a girl. Video games are generally sexist; most games feature the guy saving the helpless girl. Metroid served as an inspiration to female gamers that girls can do more than just be rescued.

Oh yeah—BigDog345 going for the feminist representations in media angle! And not with an ounce of subtlety, either.

In any case, Bonus.com decided that there wasn’t anything amiss about a kid writing a gender-egalitarian critique of a game released in 1994, and shortly after having A Parent or Guardian fax a prize claim form to Bonus.com headquarters (under “Age,” I checked off “12 or older”), my areolae were unwittingly on display to all who chose not to avert their gaze.

* * *

I will admit that using feminism to win a contest is more than a little cynical, kind of like how Dove pretends to care about girls’ self-esteem while trying to convince girls that buying Dove products will make them prettier. But I also really meant it—when I was growing up, the video games I played rarely featured women as anything but objects to be retrieved or prizes to be won. On the rare occasion that they weren’t, they were generally scantily-clad with sizable polygonal whatnots.

Even Samus Aran, the aforementioned female bounty hunter protagonist of the Metroid video game series, isn’t exactly the perfect standard bearer of forward-thinking female representation in video games. In Super Metroid, after all, the player’s “reward” for beating the game proficiently enough is seeing Samus in a bikini.



And that’s got to be a bummer for any girls looking for video game heroines—Samus is Nintendo’s first truly badass female character, and her body is just reduced to a prize-cum2-masturbatory aid for gamers who can get off on pixelated, 16-bit breasts.

* * *

One of the stranger things that #Gamergate revealed is how much pushback the idea of depicting women in a more meaningful way gets among self-described gamers. It’s actually kind of bewildering, because I can’t figure out what the opposition to that idea really is, besides a knee-jerk opposition to oh-no-terrible Social Justice Warriors or a genuine belief that women in video games should only be sexualized, victimized prizes to be won or ogled.

That’s bad for all the usual reasons. It reinforces an image of women that’s already pervasive in all manner of other media. It objectifies women and presents them as mere plot devices or eye candy in the service of men. And if it’s men who are, over and over again, the rescuers and women who are the rescued, it creates a messed up definition of what roles each gender are “supposed” to be, especially among younger gamers.

But it’s also bad for a reason that’s a lot simpler: It really sucks if you’re a girl who’s into video games to be implicitly told that video games aren’t for you. And make no mistake—if, in video game after video game, the characters who are like you are constantly the ones whose clothes are getting stripped off or constantly the ones who are helpless without someone to take care of them, that’s a pretty clear message that you’re not really welcome. Or, perhaps, you’re welcome as long as you’re willing to dress up like a sexy Raccoon Mario3 so that dudes can bank you for their alone-time fun later.

"Hey girl, if you're supposed to be Tanooki Mario, then why am I the one who's as hard as stone?"
is an example of a thing that should never, ever be said by anyone.

It’s tempting to just roll your eyes at “gaming controversies” as the firstest of First World Problems and think, haters gonna hate and nerds gonna nerd. But video games are a pretty effective gateway into interest in STEM fields—fields that aren’t just male-dominated but frequently female-hostile in both the academic and professional arenas. If you can’t get behind helping a little girl realize her dream of becoming a kickass engineer (which you totally should), then take the more selfish route: too much talent and great ideas are lost when women en masse (half the population!) are discouraged from getting into STEM disciplines, and we ought to do what we can to reverse that.

Because if it turns out that the woman who could’ve invented the FTL drive or holodeck or time machine or whatever decided to go into marketing instead, and the fact that Princess Peach once again couldn’t outsmart a big, dumb turtle in any way played a role in that, then that’d be pretty shitty.

In any case, it’s kind of sad that “women should be positively represented in video games” was a novel and controversial enough of an idea to win a contest in 2003. In 2014, it’s fucking pathetic.


1Back when it was Macromedia, because I’m old. I also used Winamp and RealPlayer, so get off my lawn.

2I’d say “no pun intended,” but who am I kidding?

3I’m not going to front—she’s obviously sexy, albeit in a ridiculous way, and I’m a little worried that that picture just awakened something in me. But it’s more than a little disturbing that seemingly the only women embraced by so-called serious gamers tend to be those that give them the weirdest boners.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to be reflexively dismissive of a woman who says she was raped, in a flow chart

With the allegations of Bill Cosby being a serial rapist propelled into public consciousness due in no small part to a devastating Hannibal Buress bit that went viral recently, it's fascinating -- in a horrible way -- to see how reflexively some people dismiss women who say that they've been raped.



Obviously, we should take women who say that they've been raped seriously. Rape is underreported, false accusations are rare, and given the skepticism and abuse that's often thrown at women who do come forward, how we react to any particular allegation affects whether women in the future feel safe reporting rape. The way we treat a rape victim in the present redounds to countless more rape victims in the future, and it's important to create a future where rape victims aren't afraid or ashamed to stand up for themselves and seek justice.

Similarly, we should take those who are accused of rape seriously when they say they didn't commit the crime. Although false accusations are rare, they're not unheard of, and if a man is the (statistically unfortunate) victim of a lie, it can destroy his life -- a cloud of suspicion can follow him, even if there's an official exoneration. Though it's not at all comparable to being a victim of rape, being a victim of a false accusation of rape is still terrible and its own sort of tragedy.

Saying "take the accusers and the accused seriously," of course, is nice and pat and somewhat unrealistic. Everybody has their own experiences and gut instincts, and jurors in the court of public opinion aren't bound by any legal standard on which to base a verdict. ("Presumed innocent until proven guilty" doesn't apply out of a courtroom, after all.)

So when some people recoil at the idea of a beloved figure like Bill Cosby being a rapist, it's not exactly surprising. (Look at a supposedly progressive MSNBC host named Joy Reid and her guest discuss the allegations -- not with concern for the alleged victims or the problem of rape, but by fretting over how Cosby's legacy is on the line and how he can manage the crisis, because, you know, journalism.) What's decidedly not okay is when the recoiling takes the form of automatic, knee-jerk dismissals.



Women who come forward with rape allegations are often put in a no-win situation, where every action or inaction is "proof" that they're lying or crazy or greedy or attention-hungry. Nobody is saying we have to automatically believe every rape accusation with complete certitude irrespective of the evidence and circumstances, but we shouldn't automatically disbelieve every one, either.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

AXA’s fascinatingly bad TV commercials: ruminations on gender, fate, and love

Come with me as I way overanalyze a pair of insurance and retirement commercials!

* * *

Here’s a TV commercial for AXA, an insurance and financial services firm, that’s pretty lame, but benignly so.


A man at an airport so absorbed with the Financial Services Fearmongering app on his tablet that he doesn’t even notice a fellow businessman who sat down next to him, leaning over with a big, expectant grin. They have the same tie, and the businessman wants to make small talk!

But alas, he’s so consumed with the “LIFE INSURANCE: Do you have enough?” question that he ignores the businessman. The businessman is so disappointed and so frustrated at this failed attempt at human connection that, a mere ten seconds after sitting down, he dashes off to find another seat—because, you know, screw you for not noticing me even though I didn’t even say “excuse me” and can clearly see you’re engrossed in something. An on-screen graphic delivers the devastating news: “That was a $40 million dollar deal.”




To emphasize how big of a missed opportunity this was, they redundantly include the word “dollar” in the graphic—that was a forty million dollar dollar deal, damn it.

The voiceover brings it all together: “We all think about life insurance. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on the things that matter today. At AXA, we offer advice and help you break down your insurance goals into small, manageable steps, because when you plan for tomorrow, it helps you live for today.”

And indeed, we’re shown that in the alternate universe where the man saw an AXA advisor, he would’ve (1) been so worry-free that he doesn’t even wear ties, yo; and (2) noticed that he and the businessman have matching socks, with all the smiling and chuckling and surprised finger-pointing that that entails.



And boom—40 million double dollars, here we come!

* * *

Here’s the other AXA TV commercial in this campaign, which is lamer still.


A woman sitting in a coffee shop is reading the legacy media version of the Financial Services Fearmongering app (“RETIREMENT: Will your savings last?”) while a sketchy-looking dude is drawing a picture of her1. Sadly, she leaves the coffee shop without even noticing him, which is a tragedy, because—“That was her soulmate.”



Look at his face there: “I tried everything—creepily staring at her from afar, surreptitiously drawing a picture of her—and nothing worked! Ugh, women today can’t appreciate a nice guy.”

A voiceover once again offers an explanation for what we just witnessed: “We all have to plan for retirement. But when we start worrying about tomorrow, we miss out on what matters today.” And had the woman seen an AXA advisor who would have helped her live for today, we see that she and the dude would’ve spent so much time at the coffee shop that the lights are off and everybody—including the staff—is gone. And then off-camera they presumably rob the coffee shop to finance his career as a sub-mediocre sketch artist.

* * *

The obvious critique is a feminist one: when AXA wants to talk to men about missed opportunities, it’s about financial deals; when AXA wants to talk to women, it’s about soulmates and true love. And it’s a fair enough critique; women are actively engaged in business and have concerns that extend beyond finding Prince Charming, and these two commercials juxtaposed against each other suggest that AXA doesn’t look at its potential female clients as serious-minded about finances. (Although, to be fair, the man in the life insurance spot does meet with a female AXA advisor, so there’s that.)

What’s kind of neat about these ads is that, somehow, AXA (or, more specifically, its ad agency) found a way to construct a pair of possibly mildly sexist ads that somehow become worse if they’re gender-swapped.

Let’s say it were two businesswomen at the airport with matching scarves. One woman tries and fails to get the other’s attention and, afterward, huffily finds another seat as the “That was a $40 million dollar deal” graphic appears. I can see myself offering two critiques: Is AXA trying to say that women are so shallow that they’d base a $40 million deal on clothes? Is AXA trying to say that women are so sensitive that they’d get upset because they couldn’t get someone’s attention after only a few seconds?

And if it were a man who narrowly missed his supposed female sketch-artist soulmate, complete with a “That was his soulmate” graphic, it’d look objectifying—as though a woman is comparable to a business deal, just another thing to win or acquire.

A better fix would be to simply switch the graphics—the woman at the coffee shop missed a $40 million deal, and the man at the airport missed his tie-and-sock sharing soulmate. Because, seriously, look at their eyes.



The only business deal that went down that night is a horizontal merger, if you know what I mean2.

* * *

On the other hand, is it even really sexist? Everybody talks about how we need to find a proper work-life balance and how your job shouldn’t be the totality of who you are. And most people will likely agree that love and family is more important than work and business. So isn’t AXA showing that the woman (who’s concerned with finding someone to love) has better priorities than the man (who’s concerned with a business deal)? Isn’t the ad really sexist against men who don’t understand what really matters in life?

Maybe! But probably not.

Obviously, women have historically had a much tougher time being taken seriously in business and money matters, so, even if we’re being extremely charitable with AXA’s intent, it still isn’t helpful in knocking down some stereotypes. And in matters of love and family, it’s generally been women who scale back on—or entirely give up—their careers and business lives, and these AXA commercials subtly reinforce that cultural norm.

A less comfortable possibility: Maybe we really don’t think love and family is more important than work and business. Think about how much time we spend at work, or thinking about work, or trying to find better, more lucrative work. It’s probably more time than we spend on “love,” right? And hey, I’m not judging—who are any of us to say that anybody’s priorities are better than the other?


* * *

But really, what’s most fascinating about these otherwise unremarkable ads is how they play with the notion of fate: If you’re not in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and in exactly the right mood, you might miss out on a business deal! Or a soulmate!

And I know it’s just a silly pair of ads, but that’s kind of a pernicious mind-virus with which to infect your audience, because that way madness lies. Literally everything is the product of such a precise set of circumstances that it can be brain-bending to think about it too hard—if I left work a few moments earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten into that car accident; if I hadn’t stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before leaving, I wouldn’t have left work those few moments later; if I hadn’t eaten pretzels as a snack, I wouldn’t have been thirsty for water; if I had enough change for Oreos, I wouldn’t have gotten pretzels from the vending machine; if I hadn’t given some of my change to that homeless guy on the corner, I would’ve had enough change for Oreos. ERGO, I AM NEVER GIVING MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE EVER AGAIN.

Of course, that’s ridiculous to conclude. And imagine if, say, you were planning on stopping by a convenience store on your way home, which, obviously, you don’t because of the car accident. And let’s say that that convenience store was robbed by a violent gunman3 who shot and killed everybody in the store—what then? Did your car accident save your life? Do you eat more pretzels now? Do you give more money to homeless people?

So it’s strange for AXA to make a pitch of, “Use our services to make sure that a precise set of mostly uncontrollable circumstances align properly so you don’t miss out on something!” I doubt anybody would take these ads quite that seriously, but still, it’s kind of a mean-spirited albeit metaphysical fear-based appeal. (Plus, using the ad’s own logic: who’s to say that, by talking to $40 million deal guy, you missed a chance to talk to some other dude who had, like, a matching suitcase who would’ve given you an $80 million deal? What then, AXA?)

* * *

And finally—“soulmate”? Really?

This is neither here nor there, but I think the idea of a soulmate—or The One, or your lobster, or whatever—is depressing. There are a lot of people on the planet, after all, and if there’s only one soulmate out there for each of us, then guys—we’re probabilistically screwed. Our soulmates might not be on the same continent. They might not be born yet, or they might have just died.

Or what if, by some odds-defying stroke of luck, your soulmate happens to be in the same city as you are and you just happen to be on the same bus, but they’re busy on their phone. Or they’re in a bad mood. Or they just got into a relationship, or just got out of one so they’re not ready to date. Or maybe they’re just too preoccupied planning for retirement. What then?

A belief in soulmates is either a belief in abject despair, or it’s a belief that the universe loves us so much that it’ll bend the laws of statistics and probability to accommodate our hearts’ desires. And honestly, I don’t think the universe even really likes us as just friends.

Plus, believing in soulmates can be kind of dangerous, especially if you genuinely believe you’ve met yours. After all, it’s harder to get out of a relationship—even a toxic one—if you believe that your partner is your one and only. And “soulmates” talk often ignores the effort that goes into successful relationships in favor of an assumption that everything will just fall into place.

So basically, BOO AXA FOR PROMOTING UNREALISTIC NOTIONS OF LOVE. And also, for making me put in way more thought into your commercials than I’m guessing anybody involved with making them did.


1See what I did there? It’s funny because he’s sketching a picture of her, and it looks like he’s been sketchily digging through her garbage to find her old pantyhose. I’m kind of an expert at puns, you see.

2Sex.

3Or gunwoman! I just talked a big game about possible sexism, and here I am, assuming ladyfolk can’t be robbers. Shame on me.

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."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“The women, all educated and employed...”

Jian Ghomeshi, a popular Canadian radio host on the CBC, was fired following allegations of sexual violence from three different women and one instance of sexual harassment of a coworker (he allegedly told her that he wants to “hate fuck” her).

Ghomeshi, in turn, posted a lengthy Facebook post denying the accusations as “false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer” and suggests that the CBC fired him simply because they were uncomfortable with him enjoying BDSM in his private life. He’s suing the CBC for $55 million.

Not knowing anything about Ghomeshi or his work, I don’t really have much to say about whether he’s right or wrong (although—speaking purely from a PR perspective—he seriously did himself no favors with that lame, self-martyring Facebook post, which almost sounds like he’s humblebragging about how crazy his sex life is). But I did want to point out this line in the Toronto Star’s story, published on Oct. 26, emphasis mine:

The Star’s interviews of the women were lengthy. The women, all educated and employed, said Ghomeshi’s actions shocked them.

Many people have pointed out how unsettling it is that the Toronto Star decided that the education and employment status of the women is germane to the discussion of possible sexual violence committed against them.

It’s easy to understand why the reporters decided to include it (and why their editor decided to keep it in): it was a way to preemptively answer questions about the women’s credibility. By mentioning that they’re educated and employed, it signals that these women have less reason to lie—they have careers that they presumably wouldn’t jeopardize with dishonesty. And because they have educations, their careers are likely ones that pay reasonably well, so these women probably aren’t necessarily planning to profit off their allegations. “All educated and employed” was the Star’s way of saying, in essence, “It’s not what you’re thinking—take them seriously!”

If that is indeed the reasoning, it’s still incredibly depressing that the Star reporters figured enough of their readers would instinctively cast mental aspersions on the women that they felt compelled to head that off. It’s even more depressing to think that the reporters were right; I don’t doubt that there were some readers who were skeptical, came to that line, and subsequently gave the women’s stories a little more credence. And needless to say, the unspoken corollary—if these women weren’t educated or weren’t employed, then maybe it’d be okay to shrug them off—is pretty repugnant.

I don’t mean to bag on the Star reporters too much here; this sort of thing happens, in one form or another, all the time. A girl or a woman is the victim of sexual harassment, assault, or violence, and as a way of bolstering her credibility, we’re told why we should afford her, unlike some other victims, the benefit of the doubt:

  • She’s educated and employed.
  • She comes from a good family.
  • She doesn’t sleep around.
  • She didn’t wear slutty clothes.
  • She wasn’t drunk or high.
  • She never made these sorts of accusations before.
  • She doesn’t have any sort of troubled past or mental health issues.

If we keep codifying which women deserve the benefit of the doubt, what we’re really doing is helping potential rapists put together a profile of an ideal victim—that is, a victim who will have the hardest time getting people to take her seriously, or, more bluntly, a victim whom the rapist will have the greatest chance of getting away with raping. The notion of a woman being targeted specifically because she’s poor, uneducated, and unemployed, or specifically because she likes having sex, wearing sexy clothes, and drinking, or specifically because she’s been raped in her past or because she has a history of mental health issues is both horrifying and horrifying plausible.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Girls" versus "women"

The argument, made by many people, for why you should call an adult female person a "woman" instead of a "girl" is self-evident and compelling: The word "girl," like "boy," refers to a child, and an adult woman is not a child, and women have historically faced (and currently still face) discrimination from those who treat them as less than intelligent, autonomous, fully-grown human beings.

So why do so many people—myself included, admittedly—continue to call adult female people "girls"?

Setting aside the people who are indeed actively trying to undermine women by infantilizing them, the most likely explanation is just a failure of language. There's no agreed-upon female counterpart to the word "guy," and in the absence of a casual way to refer to a female person, "girl" has, for better or worse, wound up being the most natural-sounding alternative1.

For those who have issues with facing the realization that they are knee-deep into adulthood and getting older, referring to women who are their age as "girls," even if they're adults, may offer some reassurance that they're not old yet. (And I'm not sure why I used the third person here, because that's pretty much me. Maybe girls still refer to me as a boy! But I'm guessing many just refer to me as old.)

But I want to float another possibility: the idea of thoughtful people interpreting the word "girl" as a demeaning slur kind of sucks if you are, in fact, a girl.

I'm not suggesting that girls aren't able to hear "there's nothing wrong with being a girl, but women deserve to be called a word that accurately reflects their age" and understand it, of course. But our culture hammers home the idea that being a girl is bad, frequently and assiduously2: Bad at sports? You throw like a girl. Cowardly? You're being girly. Immature and petty? You're acting like a teenage girl. It's some pernicious stuff, and all sorts of people—from a tough-guy governor to a dweebish game show contestant—toss it around without a second thought.

It's not a coincidence that if you want to insult a boy, words like "bitch" or "pussy" are thrown around. Or, as Jessica Valenti wrote:


Royally fucked up indeed.

I don't pretend to know the answers here. Obviously, adults in a professional setting should be referred to using accurate terminology, which means using "women" to describe adult female people. And in general, I think we should call people what they want to be called, and if a woman wants to be called a woman instead of a girl, it's basic human decency to respect that.

But at the same time, as sound and logical as the reasoning may be, there's something optically awkward about saying that "Girls are amazing!" while saying that you really, really don't want to be called a girl.

The reality is that girls get so much shit just for being girls. Ours is a culture that does not foster respect for women, yes, but it seems to reserve a special contempt for girls in particular—the music they listen to, the books they read, even the way they talk. They're used as an antonym for brave or level-headed or strong or rational3.

And while they're probably used to hearing "girl" being hurled as a pejorative from the jerks in their lives, it's got to be a bummer to hear smart, confident women—the kind of women they might want to grow up to be like—seemingly considering it a pejorative, too.



1Even this flowchart created by Shawna Hein which suggests "lady-dudes" as an alternative doesn't really solve the problem. Even though she's joking, "lady-dudes" is arguably worse than "girls"—by appending "lady" to "dude," it's defining women in terms of men by suggesting that "dude" is the default setting and "lady" is an ancillary variation. I'll put away my women's studies-and-linguistics double-major now. (No, not really.)

2I remember a time when the kids in my neighborhood were playing in the streets, and one of the boys tried to insult a girl by saying, "Ugh, you're such a girl." That would have been disheartening enough, but then the girl replied, with great indignation, "Don't call me that!" This stuff's internalized pretty early, huh?

3I cringe whenever I hear people—particularly women—use the phrase "man up." I guess it's at least plausible that they mean to contrast "man" with "boy," but let's be real: the opposite reciprocal of "man" is "girl," and given how oh-no-terrible it is for a man to be a bitch or a pussy or otherwise girly, it's pretty clear what the subtext is.

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.