I was peacefully watching Hulu the other day when an advertisement for Allstate Insurance came up, and it was so very heinous, it made me blanch. Lisa at Sociological Images wrote about the commercial in a post there, and provided a clip, if you’re interested in viewing it.
Video description: It opens on a large pink sports utility vehicle in a parking lot. We hear a pinging noise like an incoming text message, and the video cuts to the driver, a masculine person with an injured face and a pair of pink sunglasses propped up on ou head. In one hand, ou has a cell phone. Ou says ‘I’m a teenaged girl. My BFF Becky texts and says she’s kissed Johnny. Well that’s a problem, ’cause I like Johnny.’ Ou throws the phone in the back seat and puts both hands on the wheel. The video cuts to the outside, showing ou careening around the parking lot and hitting cars. ‘Now, I’m emotionally compromised,’ ou says, sideswiping a car. ‘Whoopsies. I’m all ‘OMG! Becky’s not even hot!’ And if you’ve got cut rate insurance, you could be paying for this yourself.’ A person is standing next to the car ou sideswiped, looking angry. ‘So get Allstate. You could save money and be better protected from mayhem like me.’ The person winks, and zooms out of the parking lot. A title card for Allstate Insurance appears.
There’s a lot to unpack with this advertisement. Most advertisements for car insurance in the US I see involving teenagers are ads for insurance products specifically aimed at teens and their parents. It is a simple fact that teen drivers are more dangerous, because new drivers are more dangerous, and most new drivers are teens in driving cultures like the United States. If your risks of being involved in an accident are greater, getting sufficient coverage for yourself in the event of an accident makes good sense.
But this is an ad aimed at other drivers, warning them away from the pink menace of teenage girls, and here’s where the narrative starts breaking down for me. First of all, male drivers in general are more dangerous than women, and teenage boys in particular are much more dangerous than teens of other genders. A statistically accurate ad about the dangers of being involved in an accident with a teen would have depicted a male driver. Undoubtedly an equally gendertroped male driver, perhaps one driving a giant blue truck and waving a videogame controller, but, the point is, from a purely statistical standpoint, this ad is providing erroneous information by making it seem like teen girls wielding cellphones are a menace on the road.
It’s irritating enough to see such blatant gendering in this ad. I’m astounded they couldn’t slip in just a few more pink-coded things, really, I am. This ad also presented a really stereotyped and offensive model of teen girls, an already maligned group. It makes teen girls look like they are all ignorant, reckless, and thoughtless. Obsessed with who kissed who and the implications for their romantic goals. Texting while driving. Overemotional. It makes teen girls into, literally, ‘mayhem.’
I’m not with Allstate, or I would have promptly switched insurers after seeing this advertisement. I don’t know how many other people would, but I certainly would if I was a teen girl, or an adult woman, because of the harmful and ridiculous stereotypes it’s perpetuating about women drivers and teen drivers. There has to be a better way of selling insurance than relying on gender essentialism and ageism. I can think of a number of potentially humorous ads involving situations where cars get sideswiped and people go out to see them and gnash their teeth about not having Allstate.
Because, here’s the other thing about this ad: It is clearly meant to be read as funny. We are supposed to laugh at the idea of a very masculine person saying ‘I’m a teenaged girl’ and talking in a deep voice. Haha! So funny! Because, see, the person is obviously a man, get it? So it’s funny? Yeah. My sides were splitting too, I assure you.
Gendering in advertisements is nothing new, and neither is reinforcement of binary gender roles. Gendering is often played for laughs, as well, and I notice that I don’t really laugh at gendered ads that are supposed to be funny, because, well, I don’t think they are funny. If anything, I end up thinking they are oppressive and sad, because that is what they really are. They are reminders about the gender roles we need to fit in to, and the consequences of not fitting into them. The consequence in an advertisement is to be laughed at by the viewers. How do you think that translates in real life?
Allstate isn’t doing itself any services with this ad. Car insurance companies are known for trying to create witty, engaging ads playing on various tropes about driving to sell their products. This one falls far short of the mark, and in fact is a good way to alienate certain groups of insurance customers. Trust me, teenaged girls can take time away from their texting while driving to watch Hulu and see this ad. I’m not going to say whether they will think it is funny, but I can say that they’re going to notice the obvious stereotyping, and if they know their statistics, which many do, because driving statistics are taught in driving school, they’re going to be unimpressed with the message being sent by this ad.
I note that this ad didn’t play on the stereotype of older adults being bad drivers, showing an older man or woman wreaking havoc in the parking lot, even though, statistically, older adults are also more likely to be involved in accidents when they are behind the wheel. I guess we can see which share of the insurance market Allstate is interested in retaining.