How to create ads that don't objectify women

Updated 18th February 2016
How to create ads that don't objectify women
Written by Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
Contributors Haimy Assefa, CNN
Advertising executive Madonna Badger uses four criteria to determine whether an ad objectifies women:
Prop: Does the woman have a choice or voice in this situation?
Part: Is she reduced to just a sexually provocative body part?
Plastic: Is the image manipulated to the extent that the look is not humanly achievable?
What if: Would you be comfortable to see your sister, best friend or yourself in this image?
These questions shape the creative process at Badger & Winters, the advertising agency Badger founded in 1994 that specializes in communicating to women. If the answer is yes to any of the first three questions, Badger says the concept will not be approved.
"If it's harming people, I do not want to do it," Badger tells CNN. "We can do a lot better."
This principle stands front and center in a statement on Badger & Winters' website and social media accounts: "In 2016, Badger & Winters made a commitment to never objectify women in our work." Upping the ante, the agency made a two-minute video called #WomenNotObjects. In the video, models offer mocking commentary over a collection of ads that portray scantily clad women in sexually suggestive poses, all in the name of selling food, fashion and alcoholic beverages.
"I'd sell my body for a burger," a women in the video says of an ad for Carl's Jr.
The video reiterates the agency's pledge and encourages others to follow its lead. It drew praise from the advertising industry and beyond as it spread through the Internet.
But observers say it remains to be seen whether the agency makes good on its pledge or whether others will follow their lead.
Jean Kilbourne pioneered the study of gender representation in advertising in the 1970s. She's been spreading the same message for decades in talks on college campuses and through her film, "Killing Us Softly."
"It's very powerful to see one image right after the other. It's a very different experience from happenstance seeing images of women being objectified here and there; it makes the undeniable argument that objectification of women and sexualization of women does in fact exist."
Kilbourne applauds Badger for using her elevated status in the industry to spread the word. Her reaction to the pledge is a bit more nuanced: "Good luck with every connotation: Good luck sincerely, as in I hope you make it happen, and good luck like yeah, sure," she said. "What matters now is holding the agency and the rest of the industry to their word."
Badger and other advertising insiders say it is possible to make successful ads that don't objectify women and that more are coming out all the time. They know it's on them to lead by example.
"Our job is to make great creative [work] which does not objectify anyone. Day to day, that is our commitment," Badger says.

Sexism: A 'dead paradigm'

It's a bold mission in an industry that has perpetuated the problems Badger wants to overcome, especially coming from someone whose client roster includes Victoria's Secret, Calvin Klein and various beauty brands. Badger acknowledges her role as creator of many of those images, including the iconic 1992 Calvin Klein ad campaign that showed a topless Kate Moss pressed against the chiseled body of Mark Wahlberg (known then as rapper Marky Mark).
Badger says she knows better now, and so does the industry. The conventional wisdom using "shame and anxiety" to sell products is a "dead paradigm," she said. Decades of research show not only that objectifying women in ads perpetuates negative stereotypes for both genders but that women don't really like it, she said.
"Agencies create advertising that promotes not only the product, but also the people who make it. Ads should never 'use people' or take advantage of women and men in any way, shape or form. It should never show people as objects that have NO power NO possibility and certainly are NOT equals," Badger said.
Interestingly, some of the brands featured in the #WomenNotObjects video support its message.
SKYY Vodka said in a statement that ad featured in the video is from 16 years ago. "Since that time, SKYY Vodka has made a decision to not objectify anyone in our advertising. In fact, we are proud to take the lead on social causes promoting equality and respect for everyone," spokesman Dave Karraker said.
American Apparel also distanced itself from the ad featured in the video, saying it does not comment on work made under prior management. "The current management team -- largely comprised of women -- categorically opposes the objectification of women," the company said in a statement.
Carl's Jr., however, resisted the implication that its ads are demeaning, noting that models and spokeswomen participate willingly in their ads.
"The women in our award-winning ads are intelligent, talented and beautiful professional actresses and models who often reach out to us and voice their interest in being part of our fun, iconic ads. We also use female role models in our advertising. Our commercial featuring the uber popular UFC champion and judo Olympian Ronda Rousey last year is a prime example of that. We have only the greatest respect for women and their contributions to society at all levels in business, at home and in the community."
Badger points to some of Super Bowl 50 ads as positive examples featuring a diverse array of men and women with voices and agency. BMW's "Defy Labels" ad for its Mini Brand featured athletes Serena Williams and Abby Wambach and actor Harvey Keitel.
Coors Light's "Climb On" spot featured images of men and women scaling walls, running races and white-water rafting as part of the brand's effort to overcome the frat house sensibility that has long defined its ads.
"It takes time to undo that baggage," Britt Dougherty, MillerCoors' senior director of marketing insights, told The New York Times in January. "We've represented a version of masculinity that wasn't appealing to women."
It's progress, but it's not a stand the industry has on the whole has been willing to take, Kilbourne says.
"Advertisers on one hand are very creative, but in my experience, they're generally not risk-takers," she says. "They rarely step outside of the box so if someone makes this kind of a pledge -- which really is radical and at least attempts it -- that, in itself, is going to be interesting to see how it pans out."

Social media: 'The missing accelerant'

Advertising veteran Kat Gordon says that the past five years have brought a "dramatic change" in the representation of women in ad campaigns, thanks in large part to social media.
"Social media was the missing accelerant all those years when Jean Kilbourne was talking to audiences of 10 or 20 people about this. There was no mechanism to talk back to brands and now there is. Now, when brands put out work and it's disrespectful, they are publicly called to the mat in real-time, leading to public shaming on a massive scale," Gordon says.
There's a difference, though, between celebrating beauty and objectifying women, she says.
"There's nothing wrong with women wearing dresses or cosmetics; it's the context in which you show the women," she said says. "The images where women are lying around like corpses or positioned in a sexual way are not OK. Creating beautiful images of beautiful women can be art, even if they're ads."
A former copywriter and creative director with more than 20 years of industry experience, Gordon works on the issue from behind the scenes. After learning that only 3% of creative directors are women, she started The 3% Conference in 2012 to tip the scales.
The industry is making progress, she says. Today, women make up 11% of creative directors, translating to better ads.
"The more women you have making media, the more media will make of women."

What matters now: Accountability

Kilbourne agrees that it's possible to make ads that don't objectify or sexualize women. Badger's four criteria are good starting points, but advertisers also need to expand the definition of beauty to include people of different races and body shapes, according to Kilbourne.
"It would take certain amount of risk in the beginning for advertisers initially to get us more used to seeing a broader range of what's considered beautiful," she says.
Writer and media critic Jennifer Pozner concurs that it is possible to create inoffensive ads just like it is possible to use humor that punches up rather than punches down.
#WomenNotObjects is the latest example of a company doing that using a pro-feminist message, said says Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News and author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV."
What matters now, though, is holding the agency accountable.
"I always applaud companies when they put out a video that raises awareness about the impact of media content on various aspects of culture," she said. "As we applaud this company for pledging to not create misogynistic ads in future, it is imperative that we make sure this pledge is upheld and that we are ready to hold the company accountable."

Determination born of tragedy

Badger admits that fear of going against the tide kept her from taking a stand sooner. Becoming a mother of three girls made her start thinking about the impact of media images that objectify women. Still, she doubts she would have taken a stand had she not lost them and her parents in a 2012 house fire.
"If my three girls were here and I was still a single mom doing this, would I still have the fearlessness to do it? That I don't know. What I can tell you today is I don't there's anything more you can take away from me that would hurt me as much I've already been hurt," she says.
"I don't mean to sound overly dramatic, but I am a woman with nothing else to lose."
Badger & Winters has every intention of sticking to the pledge, she says. It's part of the agency culture, starting with Badger.
"Listening to women is what led us to the decision to never objectify a man or woman again and furthermore, to get this message to everyone, creatives and consumers. Because the harm objectification does is based on very real information. The harm is no longer theoretical."