Why YWCA targeted music videos with content warnings

Six-second pre-roll ads aimed to get young viewers thinking more critically about objectification.

YWCA Metro Vancouver is taking on the objectification of women in media by posting warnings before certain popular video content.

A series of six-second bumpers created by Rethink resemble the warnings sometimes seen before movie trailers, except the typical “R” rating has been replaced with “Female Objectification,” “Hypermasculinization,” “Sexist Content” and “Misogynist Behaviour.”

The clips – called “Ambush Advisories” – were then used as pre-roll ads and targeted to run before specific music videos YWCA believes include unhealthy sexualization, both to warn young people and get them thinking more critically about what they are about to watch. The list of targeted videos grew over the course of the campaign. While there is a stereotype that sexualized content is typically only found in videos for hip hop artists, the campaign has singled out videos across genres, including country, pop, indie and dance.

“The goal was to start a conversation and get people to think critically in that moment,” says Chantelle Krish, director of communications and advocacy for YWCA Metro Vancouver. “We are consumers of so much content online, and we don’t always take time to think about what we’re about to watch, especially when we move through it all very quickly. A six-second ad you can’t skip has a way of getting people to stop and think.”

The “Ambush Advisories” are part of YWCA Vancouver’s larger Culture Shift project, which aims to change the societal attitudes that contribute to the sexualization of women and hypermasculinization of men, particularly in the media. Research backing the initiative has suggested these issues impact mental health, contribute to unhealthy relationships and help shape a culture that is permissive of violence against women.

Even if it’s impossible to get into the intricacies of the issue in a six-second video, Krish says seeing the warning immediately before the music video shapes the viewer’s mindset and hopefully forces them to look more critically at what they’re viewing. From there, the hope is that they will take the time to explore the “#CultureShift” hashtag, contribute to the conversation and seek out some of YWCA’s own resources.

In addition to what is on its website, YWCA runs ongoing media literacy and education initiatives – including youth education program, after school programs and a youth conference – and the organization is currently developing an online toolkit that will help people send complaints to Advertising Standards Canada about commercials they believe are problematic or harmful.

Music videos on YouTube are popular among the young people the campaign is targeting, but Krish says they were also selected because they’re a medium that’s particularly guilty of portraying women and men in binary roles.

“Women are shown to be objects for pleasure and desire that lose their sense of agency and personality, and men are forced to be macho and tough,” Krish says. “We talk to youth a lot about what they are experiencing, where are they seeing this stuff and how it permeates their lives. A lot of our work is directed by the youth that view this kind of content most, so we try to develop campaigns that allow us to bring it back out to them and encourage critical thinking.”

If not handled thoughtfully, a message admonishing the objectification of women could unintentionally lead to “slut shaming” content in which women use their sexuality to empower themselves, something Krish says the organization is being mindful of. The broader Culture Shift initiative and the research behind it has drawn a clear distinction between “sexuality” and “sexualization,” describing how the latter can have a negative and unhealthy influence on the former in both girls and boys.

“We’re careful to remind people there is a difference between how women are represented in media and what is happening behind the scenes,” Krish adds. “Who is encouraging them to pose in these ways? Who is producing this content? Does the woman have agency and decision making power? The consequences of that extend into things like pay equity and workplace harassment, so that’s something else we’re hoping to raise awareness of.”

The campaign wrapped up on Aug. 26, but Krish says, based on the response, YWCA may explore ways to extend the campaign, especially given how cost-effective the digital buy on YouTube was.