Recently, there was a bit of a controversy over an advertisement put together by cleaning company Method to promote the Household Products Labeling Act which highlighted some kind of interesting social trends and beliefs. I’m kind of late out of the gate writing about it (I’m pretty sure everyone else has already packed up and gone home), but covering old news isn’t exactly new for me, so I’m going to go ahead and write about it anyway. Because I can.
The controversy started when Method released a video, “Shiny Suds,” which was designed to depict residue which gets left behind when using “chemical” shower cleaning products. The idea is that many cleaning products have nasty icky chemicals in them and that people should be using nice natural products which don’t leave “residue” behind. This was an ad clearly targeted at women, thanks to the perception that women do most of the purchasing of cleaners, the belief that women are the only ones who clean, and the idea that women are the only ones who care about icky residue.
Given that fact, you’d think that Method would have gone with an ad which would appeal to women. Maybe it would amuse them, maybe it would spark thoughts, maybe it would get them interested in the product in some other way. The goal, when producing an advertisement, is to find a target demographic and to make sure that the ad is tailored to that demographic so that they will then run out and buy the advertised product or support the promoted cause. If an ad fails to do that, you’ve got a problem, both because the product won’t sell and because if you really anger consumers, they might be turned off all your brands.
How did Method opt to depict this, then, the idea that commercial cleaners leave chemical residues behind? There were a lot of different ways it could have gone; there’s a Dove commercial, for example, where two women are shown in dramatized images, with the Dove woman’s skin left clean after a shower, and the other woman’s skin left covered in residue. There are those ads for various bathroom cleaning products which do a similar things, presenting a stain or mark and showing two different soaps at work and depicting how effective they are at cleaning.
But no, Method decided to go into bizarroworld. They went with a video of a woman trying to take a shower and being ogled, heckled, and harassed by chemical residue. This, apparently, was the best way to depict chemical residues left behind by cleaning products. The ad made me uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.
It made a lot of other people uncomfortable as well, apparently, because a number of feminist websites started speaking out and going “what in blazes, Method?!” This is actually not the first time that strange advertising has been heavily critiqued by women; the Motrin Moms is another good example of an advertising campaign gone horribly awry, alienating and infuriating the target demographic instead of appealing to it.
Method at first stonewalled, going with the usual “well I’m sorry you think it’s offensive” defense, but the advertisement was eventually pulled because there was so much backlash. What’s interesting is the critique of the critique, with numerous advertising publications going on about how women who protested the ad (in blog comments, in emails, in blog posts, etc.) were “killing Method’s buzz” and ruining the fun. Obviously everyone should have taken the advertisement as a joke, including all those killjoy rape survivors who found the advertisement tremendously triggering.
So, here’s the problem. You cannot get pissed at an advertising demographic for not finding your ads appealing. You should get pissed at the company which prepared the ad, because they obviously did not think out the demographic very well or do their research. Method paid for that ad, and they paid for it to be placed, and it was a major bust. They should be rightfully annoyed with Droga5, which made the ad, for making such a faily ad.
Why is all of the backlash about the Method backlash focusing on the demographic, not the company which made the ad? It all feeds into general cultural ideas about women and feminism; that we don’t know what’s good for us, that feminists don’t have a sense of humor, that we need to be babytalked and lectured, that we can’t make up our own minds, that feminists are too serious all the time.
If this ad had been targeted at a male demographic and failed, I am willing to bet that the bulk of the criticism in advertising publications would have been on the company which made the ad and their inability to consider their demographic well. These publications might have discussed similar ads in the past, the goal of the ad, how the ad was structured, and pitfalls to avoid.
But when it’s women who are infuriated by an ad, it’s obviously their fault, not the fault of the ad company, which is then allowed to wash its hands of the matter. “It was a perfectly good ad, it’s not our fault that teh wimmiz are all oversensitive.” And the articles are all about “sexism complaints,” which is a gross misstatement of the situation.
People weren’t complaining about sexism, because if we were going to get upset about sexism in advertising, there would be no time in our days to do anything else. People were complaining about the fact that the ad depicted and reinforced rape culture and that the company, when asked to respond, was initially incredibly dismissive and offensive.
The advertising community has a strangely dichotomous approach to women. On the one hand, women are a coveted target demographic who supposedly have a lot of spending power (at least on household things like cleaners), but on the other, women are to be treated with disdain. Patronizing ad demographics is actually not a very effective way to sell things, and maybe it’s time that advertisers be reminded of this.