The Wrong Way To Sell Something

In it’s purest form, commercial advertising is a call to action, an appeal to get the viewer off the sofa and into a store to buy a product. When Method released a commercial criticizing the use of environmentally harsh chemicals that also used sexual assault imagery, they not only risked being seen as a company that will use misogyny to hawk a product, but also as a company that is comfortable risking the wealthier, liberal, environmentally-conscious female consumer market they hoped to attain. Some action, amirite?

So when some feminist bloggers got ahold of the video, they not only pushed the point that it’s backward and tiresome to rely on the humiliation of women to push a product or idea (see also: PETA) but also that the use of sexual assault imagery was so viscerally upsetting for many women that it made them less likely to buy or support the use of whatever was being sold. Method, who commissioned the creepy, leering bubbles video by a third party, not only took heart to the criticism, but also pulled the advertising fail from “all controllable sources” and issued a public apology acknowledging many of the complaints made by their online critics. It showed that Method is willing to listen to their market * — or is at least unwilling to risk the viral anti-campaign this vocal and active market could wage — and that active members of the public can communicate with corporate entites for a greater good. For a minute it seemed like a win all around.

But the advertising industry has taken offense to our offense, and boy, they’re sure gonna tell us. Advertising Age has released an editorial in print and online that tells all of us annoyed with their misogynist offerings to “take a deep breath,” “have some perspective,” and “quit looking for offense in every single commercial.”

The latest March of the Offense Brigade was set into action by Method’s “Shiny Suds” spot. A clear spoof on the old “Scrubbing Bubbles” spot, it shows a woman entering her shower only to find some creepy, leering talking bubbles that have no intention of going away. Many of our readers viewed the spot. Many loved it. Little did they know that while they were getting the warm fuzzies laughing at a clever spot and considering taking civic action for better laws to disclose chemicals in household cleaners, they were actually condoning rape.

That’s right. A spot featuring animated talking bubbles, playing off human nature and making a point about disgusting chemical residue is evidence of “rape culture.”

The editorial continues:

Marketers are often chastised for being too conservative, for not taking risks in their advertising. But sometimes, it’s easy to see their point. Especially in an age when a blog post and 300 commenters can derail a campaign, maybe it makes sense to play it safe. A spot might upset the homophobic. It might upset men’s rights groups. Conversely, it might run afoul of gay-rights activists or ardent feminists. And God forbid a marketer crosses mommy bloggers.

We’re the consumers, Ad Age, you sell to us. And it’s not our job to handhold you while you figure out the drawbacks of “viral marketing.” At least Steve Hall had the sense to back off and apologize.**

Melissa does a fine job mocking this last paragraph and explaining why we activists do what we do, so I’ll stick with the obvious angle: Sarah Haskins must have really pissed these guys off.

Not just Sarah Haskins and her wildly funny “Target Women” ad spoofs, but everyone else with a blog or message board or Facebook page or Twitter account who for the first time in recent history has the agency to critically respond to traditional media. For every clever ad that graces our paths, there is another that tells us stew is manly because liquids are for girls, women are so stupid that they’ll buy anything that has flowers and a matching tote, women don’t drink beer (or maybe, women should boycott said beer), it isn’t for the ladies if it isn’t pink, man gadgets use technology while woman gadgets use magic, what men desire above all is a return to pre-feminist time (and Dockers!), and women’s primary function is to adhere to very narrow beauty standards at all costs lest catastrophe occur. Literally. Unless the ladies in the ad are already dead, in which case they glamourize an otherwise boring photo shoot.

So maybe bad advertising is a new anti-advertising, where instead of getting the public off the sofa and into a store to buy a product, the public stays on the couch blogging about why others should also refrain from going to the store to buy said product. If an advertiser can’t sell a product on it’s merits, they are left with messaging, and if the messaging is bad, wrong, off, offensive, misogynist, homophobic, racist, whatever, someone is going to notice. In ye olden days before SNS… oh, those were the good days, back when mediocre ad campaigns could fly under the public radar and advertisers were only beholden to whoever signed the contracts.

Feminist blogs (perhaps only the “ardent” ones) are very aware of advertising, but then, so are most politically aware folks since media studies became a part of canonical secondary curricula. Many of us now have the ways and means to respond to what, if not “offends”, annoys us. Instead of being offended that we don’t buy their expertise, you’d think advertisers would QUIT PATRONIZING THE CORE CONSUMERS THAT BUY THEIR PRODUCTS. Today, when bad advertising rankles the public, companies and advertisers alike get our feedback and all the glory and mess that entails. Welcome to the internet.

__________________
* I may be giving too much credit to Method. See a discussion of their “public apology” and the timeline of this apology in comments.
** Same with Steve Hall.


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20 comments for “The Wrong Way To Sell Something

  1. Athenia
    December 13, 2009 at 11:46 am

    “Marketers are often chastised for being too conservative, for not taking risks in their advertising.”

    What?? Are you serious??

    I feel like I’m bombarded with sensational ads that don’t even talk about the product at hand all the time.

    Also, you know what would be adventurous?? Actually having a man do the laundry in a commerical for once. That would be “risky” and “revolutionary.”

  2. December 13, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Also, you know what would be adventurous?? Actually having a man do the laundry in a commerical for once. That would be “risky” and “revolutionary.”

    Right. And a response like this also rubs out all the other possibilities that the ad group could have come up with, for example, in the leering bubbles campaign. There are a lot of ways to anthropomorphize an object to show that it’s bad and undesirable, so why did they take on a sexual assault angle? For a creative industry it shows a striking lack of imagination.

  3. Melissa
    December 13, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I read a particularly horrifying rant at a site called “Ad Rants,” which…well, I won’t even repeat any of it here, I’ll just say that the rape apology in the rant made the original commercial look positively warm and fuzzy by comparison. I went back to look at it today, and saw that the entire article was crossed out. At the bottom of the page they’d added:

    “Ever wish you could take something back? I do.

    The tidal wave of commentary on this over the last few days has certainly given me a taste of my own medicine and reminded me of a couple of things:

    #1 – When you’re wrong admit it.
    #2 – When you hurt someone’s feelings say you’re sorry.

    I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”

    Heck yeah!

  4. Charity
    December 13, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for posting this, I hadn’t seen the Advertising Age editorial. I did want to ask, though, was Method’s apology actually “public”? The Jezebel piece is only quoting the same, mass-produced identical form letter apology I (and many others) also received over email when I wrote to complain, several times, about the ad. I wasn’t aware they did anything “publicly” as well – perhaps a statement on their web page or another forum. In fact, it was my understanding that they pulled the whole discussion from their blog, which meant critical comments from the public would no longer be seen. If they did redeem themselves some other way, please let me know. Otherwise, I’ll refrain from giving them too many kudos.

  5. December 13, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Hm, Charity, I could be wrong. I’ll look into this further.

  6. December 13, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    My criticism of that ad was purely that trivializing rape or rape culture ends up destroying its horror as a means of deterrent. We already invoke the name of Hitler or Nazis for anything we find remotely off-putting or against our sensibilities. Doing so denigrates the struggle of Holocaust victims and also destroys the horror of Nazism. We often forget that language is a construct of which we have much control and that it is through our use or misuse that its ultimate meaning rests.

    I pointed out at the time that once upon a time, nudity in film was so shocking that using it made a statement—offensive to some, liberating to others. It was a subversive activity and now it induces yawns because it it used so frequently. For whatever reason, if we desensitize violence in any form to any person for any reason, we are doing humanity a grave disservice.

  7. southern students for choice-athens
    December 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    It looks like Method responded to this interactively to a point on their Facebook page, the “official” page for Method consumers, and then said to send further comments directly to them and not to create more posts on their Facebook page, though it’s still possible to add comments to existing posts. The email posted to Jezebel is probably Method’s intended response to email sent directly to them, as their Facebook comment requests. They probably feel these posts, comments, email response, and a statement that they are pulling the video from controlled sources is sufficient.

    Here’s a link to Method’s Facebook page:

    http://www.facebook.com/method

    After numerous comments criticizing (and some complimenting) the video, on November 23rd Method made the following post:

    method we just removed a comment claiming the Shiny Suds video makes fun of a very serious topic. method in no way condones harassment in any form. if you’d like to discuss more, please email us at info@methodhome.com

    On November 25th, 4:17 PM a Facebook user named Bill Karmer created the following post:

    I loved Method for years but their latest ad campaign, “Shiny Suds” was is very poor taste. I wrote the company a few times and they refuse to completely pull the video….If you are also annoyed, join the Facebook group: “Method – Good for the Environment but Demeans Woman.”

    …and added the following comment one minute later at 4:18 PM on November 25th:

    In their letter sent today, they wrote, “We currently do not plan to remove the video, as we stand by the goal of this campaign: to raise awareness about the dirty chemicals often found in traditional cleaning products. However, in light of the inappropriate responses seen on YouTube, we have removed the ability to comment in order to keep the focus on the Household Products Labeling Acts.

    …and then at 4:47 PM Method posted the following response:

    Bill – Thank you for your sincere feedback about our “Shiny Suds” video. It was not at all our intent to offend or promote any form of harassment. We understand the concerns associated with our video and are removing it from YouTube and all other controlled sources.

    The Facebook page “Method – Good for the Environment but Demeans Woman” and the date November 25th may not have been the tipping point for Method to pull the video, but it’s in response to a post about that where Method makes a public statement that they’re pulling the video from controlled sources (where they can pull the video) because of concerns about the video. So that at least gives some timeframe and context for Method’s statements and actions.

  8. December 13, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    I question Steve Hall’s “apology” when he’s still basically saying the same things elsewhere.

  9. December 13, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I question Steve Hall’s “apology” when he’s still basically saying the same things elsewhere.

    Booooo. Where at?

  10. Lauren Bellot
    December 13, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    then Bill Karmer not only took down the anti-method site, but also his own facebook page. Very suspicious.

    Has anyone anywhere considered the possibility that Methods competition is behind at least some of these protests?

  11. December 13, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Here’s my ‘war on- shopping days until- black friday -X-mas’ greeting to Advertising Age. You are the voice of Satan speaking through my TV. Satan says, “Buy This.”
    I’m as shortsighted and greedy as the next woman, and I buy plenty of stuff, but the consumer culture is a kind of pyramid scheme. You have to keep craving and buying.
    Various events provoked me enough to take extra care to buy local and small. I rediscovered my local coffee roaster, supermarket, un-super market, produce vendor, soft-drink bottler. I occasionally miss Whole Paycheck, but I resist.
    Don’t buy. It really scares them.
    I’m recycling my wardrobe. What if we expressed the power of Venus and invented our own individual couture?

  12. preying mantis
    December 13, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    “I went back to look at it today, and saw that the entire article was crossed out.”

    Unfortunately, the same tantrum seems to be going on in at least two later posts. Bleh.

  13. jemand
    December 13, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    I figure that they did this on purpose, it was supposed to be a “viral” campaign. You can’t get any MORE viral than making something you plan to ban, as soon as it has time to get beyond your “controlled” platforms.

  14. Nicole
    December 14, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Confession: For a moment I sadly bought into the ‘humorless feminist’ stereotype and I was doubting how bad that ad was. I was sure the initial offense and “rape culture” comments were an overreaction. And then I saw the last 30 seconds push the “joke” way too far into gross, uncomfortable territory. What were they thinking?! It’s a terrible piece of work, especially for something aimed at women.

    Odd to see people in the *advertising* industry get so defensive about a poorly-received message.

  15. benvolio
    December 14, 2009 at 11:43 am

    A nit pick, but I think you mean “hawk” a product, not “hock.” The latter suggests pawnshop activity, the former, aggressive sales. In some regions of the country these two words are pronounced the same, which may lead to the confusion.

    Otherwise, I agree with the entire post.

  16. December 14, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Hee! I’m queen of typos. Every time I look at the post there’s something else that needs to be corrected.

  17. wiggles
    December 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Has anyone anywhere considered the possibility that Methods competition is behind at least some of these protests?

    Good for them. If I was an exec at Seventh Generation I’d be all over this. Maybe sponsor an anti-sexual assault PSA to really get my digs in.

  18. December 15, 2009 at 8:40 am

    A spot featuring animated talking bubbles, playing off human nature…

    I love it when rapey dudes get dismissed as something that’s just part of “human nature.” Honestly, this ad is no different. I had no idea how gross it was until I actually watched — I figured how bad COULD it be? — but it seriously skeeved me out and there was nothing hilarious about it at all. Though it’s always good to know that perverts who hang out in your bathroom are just acting in accordance to “human nature,” or something. Wow.

  19. Sheelzebub
    December 15, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Has anyone anywhere considered the possibility that Methods competition is behind at least some of these protests?

    Who gives a fuck? Method still fucked up, big time. That’s not their competition’s fault, that’s Method’s fault. And not for nothing, but no one says the competition’s behind it if a company screws up in another way and turns off its target demographic. But I’m supposed to weep over the machinations of shadowy green cleaning products competitors in this particular case?

    Really?

    Give me a fucking break.

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