Are Mad Men mad at women?

Sex can sell, but does it have to? Industry folk from agency and client-side talk sexism in ads.

“People need to tune up their sexism radar, just a notch.”

That’s Karen Howe. She was a little perturbed after hearing that when Canadians see a sexist ad, only 46% feel annoyed. And just 9% feel angry. What’s worse, some don’t even notice sexist undertones in ads at all.

If you look at the numbers in a new Advertising Standards Canada report — released to the public yesterday and which looks at consumers’ impression of advertising today — you’ll find less than half (43%) of women in Canada consider an ad with a bunch of businessmen (and no women) as sexist. Even a scantily clad woman in an ad that’s meant to sell a product to women is considered sexist by just 56% of female Canadians. That number jumps to 82% when it’s for a product for men.

What’s with the double standard? And why is the objectification of women to sell a product considered more sexist than portrayals of archaic gender roles, such as a woman walking a couple steps behind a man, or having women in the passenger seat of a car?

The Township’s Howe wasn’t the only industry member asking these kinds of questions yesterday, when she took to the stage at the ASC’s annual meeting for a panel discussion that explored whether Mad Men are indeed mad at women. General Mills’ Natalie Wallace, Grip’s Randy Stein and the Gandalf Group’s Jennifer Espey tossed their ideas on stage, while The Globe and Mail‘s Susan Krashinsky moderated the debate.

The marketing reporter opened the discussion with a video that spread like internet wildfire earlier this year, titled “We Are #WomenNotObjects.” It called out ads from various categories that harshly objectified women (mostly through nude images and shameful degradation led by men).

“Sex sells,” said Espey. “But it doesn’t have to be objectification. We can sell in a much healthier nature.”

The principal partner of the research firm recognizes that society has become a little desensitized to the barrage of crude and inappropriate images that (inaccurately) represent the majority of women, and their relationship with men. But she also says there is an opportunity for brands and agencies to flip that by being intentionally anti-sexist through reflections of what’s actually happening in society today (for instance, what General Mills is doing with its Peanut Butter Cheerios “Dadhood” platform).

“We wanted to help shape the classic Canadian family,” said Wallace of the campaign that shows a dad being proud to be, well, a dad, through his chaotic morning ritual (which, by the way, features mom in a suit, leaving for work, while dad stays at home to get the kids ready for the day). “We learned how to talk about what’s happening today, by looking at stereotypes and breaking those boundaries. Being socially responsible and selling a product, we don’t see those as being mutually exclusive.”

“Stereotypes in ads are a lazy crutch,” added Stein. “There needs to be vigilance on behalf of agencies and marketers. Brands want to be seen as contemporary and future-forward. It’s incumbent on us to change [the current use of stereotypes in ads].” Wallace agreed, saying that, “We, as marketers, should be uber conscious of it, [but] creatives should also question the client. Be vigilant, question why.”

Discussions around how to bring about change will typically churn up statements like “there needs to be more female leadership” — but Krashinsky noted that this isn’t the be-all and end-all, with Go Daddy’s female CMO having signed off on various controversially sexist ads for years. In fact, a male executive at the company is making it his personal goal to repair its sexist reputation.

Espey agreed that change won’t come from women alone, especially not the younger generation.

“We are in a sexist culture, women are raising a sexist culture as well,” she said, adding that everyone needs to recognize that there is a problem, especially the older generation, because, simply from the data she’s been mining, the problem “won’t be cured by millennials.”

Featured image via Shutterstock