Billboard Fail: Why this billboard celebrating “remarkable women” doesn’t work

And it’s not just because it doesn’t show any actual, y’know, women.

Billboard for the Riva Spatz Women's Wall of Honour featuring three white men in suits and no women

Celebrating dudes in suits


The thing about writing billboards is that they’re a huge pain, because you can’t use a lot of words on them. The idea is that someone is going to be driving along at speed and still be able to process the message — generally, no more than about ten words. (I’ve actually seen billboards with QR codes on them, which are okay-ish for areas with dead-stop traffic but a potential crunchy nightmare on fast-moving highways.)

We celebrate remarkable women on the Riva Spatz Women’s Wall of Honour. Join us.

The Riva Spatz Women’s Wall of Honour is a wall at Mount Saint Vincent University that pays tribute to remarkable women, and the intended message of the billboard is, “You should donate to the Women’s Wall of Honour, much like we did.”

1. It’s plug-ugly. I mean, hello to some art direction.

2. Teeny, teeny type. Is it really so important that I know that Dude #2 is Danny Graham of McInnes Copper I should risk a car accident to figure it out?

3. The URL is ridiculous. It’s too long for a billboard, and it has “wallof” in the middle, and I don’t know what a “wallof” is. “Womenswall.ca” remains available, y’all, in case you’re up for a redirect.

4. There’s no indication that the three besuited white dudes on the billboard are the “we” in the headline. With the university logo in the corner, it could easily be an institutional “we” from the university. And that makes the inclusion of three besuited white dudes seemingly random. (These three individuals are decisively male.)

5. There are no women on it. It’s a “women’s wall” ad with three dudes and not a single woman anywhere.

See, it’s a common saying in advertising that “you aren’t selling the shovel, you’re selling the hole.” It means that whether they understand it or not, consumers are enticed not by the features of the product (“Now 20 percent more shovely!”) but by the benefit they receive from it (“My, that’s a nice hole. Thank you, shovel!”)

When you see a billboard like this, what benefit is it offering? There are three dudes there, and they’re wearing suits, and they all seem pretty happy. Maybe the message is, “Donate to the Wall, and you’ll be happy and besuited like us!” Which I suppose is a thing, if you aspire to be a happy dude in a suit. Join us. Donate, and you’ll be in our club, smiling and wearing a suit and hanging out with other dudes. Maybe you can be like the dude in the middle, with the yellow tie and his jacket unbuttoned. He’s obviously the wildman of the group.

The university says the billboard is only one part of an entire campaign featuring donors, and that other executions include men and women. But even when you get to the site mentioned on the billboard, your first image is of those same three guys, followed by a picture of three women a few inches later. The navigation about the wall is all the way below the fold. And the copy is the same — join us in celebrating remarkable women. Join us. Because this is, of course, all about us.

You want to do a donor-featured execution? Besuited white dude with his arm around his mom. I donated because my mom is the shit, and if your mom is the shit, you should donate, too. Because the wall is honoring women who are the shit. Donor plus promising female college student — You should donate to support young women like this one, because she’s awesome. In honor of awesome women. Female donor and woman she’s honoring, because at the risk of making wild swings, I’m guessing at least one woman has donated and at least one more could be enticed to donate if the ad was compelling (and the URL readable).

Breakdown: If you want people to donate because they can be like these generous, happy white dudes in suits, you’re right on the money. (Except for the copy. You’re going to cause a pileup.) If you want people to donate because remarkable women are remarkable, you’re not even close. Sure, money is money either way. But Smiling Besuited Dude #2 hugging his remarkable daughter says, Isn’t she great? Don’t you have a woman in your life who’s great? Don’t you want to hono(u)r her? And his remarkable, grimacing daughter says, Jesus, Dad, button your jacket. This isn’t a tractor pull. And, thusly compelled, you make your donation to the wallof, and everybody wins.


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27 Responses to Billboard Fail: Why this billboard celebrating “remarkable women” doesn’t work

  1. catfood says:

    Caperton Gets Marketing.

    Don’t present what’s meaningful to you. Present what will connect with your readers and viewers. Duh.

  2. Kasey Weird says:

    Eep. That’s where I did my undergrad!

    …They’ve got a long history of terrible advertizing, actually.

  3. Pseudonym says:

    You’re assuming the motivation for putting up that billboard is to encourage donations to the Women’s Wallof Honour. Maybe the real purpose is to tell everyone how awesome these three dudely donors are for caring about women.

    • speedbudget says:

      Oh, jeez. Now they’re going to require billboards along with cookies.

    • catfood says:

      It does seem as though the “Women’s Wall of Honour” could be absolutely anything. How would this billboard be different had they substituted “Keystone XL Pipeline” or “Happy Pasture Puppy Shelter”?

      It’s not about the Wall. It’s about the three dudes.

  4. FMAiscool says:

    to me, there’s a possibility they’re women as well…and in that case, i can’t come to the same conclusions

    • Alara Rogers says:

      If they’re women, they’re women who are pretty soaked in male privilege, who have an entirely masculine external presentation… and in *advertising*, it does not matter what your subjective experience is, what matters is how other people objectify you.

      In other words, if a trans woman who is dressed as a besuited man, presenting as a man, using a man’s name, appears on a billboard, she is, for the purpose of that advertisement, a man, because no aspect whatsoever of her subjective experience of womanhood is getting into the message she’s sending. Or rather, she’s still a woman, but she’s playing a man in the ad, so the ad is still sending the message “Be like this awesome dude”, not “Be like this awesome woman.”

      Spuds MacKenzie was played by a female dog; Lassie was played by a male one. If they were sentient beings, they might be amused or irritated that humans can’t tell their gender from looking at them, but they’d still be beings who were choosing to play opposite-gender characters. Lassie is still a female dog even if she is played by a male. Bart Simpson is still male even though his voice actor is a woman. He’s not “really” a girl, he’s really a boy, but since he’s a fictional boy he’s played by an adult woman. All the women who’ve played Peter Pan on stage were playing a character who was very, very much a male archetype (the whole point to Wendy’s role in Peter Pan is that the boys who won’t grow up won’t allow a girl to not grow up alongside them; they still expect her to be an adult, they just expect to be able to disrespect her and grant her no adult authority.)

      The three men in the picture aren’t fictional, but to the best of my knowledge, none of them are out as trans, so regardless of what they are subjectively, for purposes of the ad they are men. So no. There isn’t a possibility that they are women, because it’s an ad displaying men. The fact that the men happen to be real people who might possibly be women who are in the closet about being women doesn’t make it an ad showing women; an ad is about the information conveyed in the picture, within the lens of cultural perception, and nothing else.

      • FMAiscool says:

        you do have a point, although personally i would like the world to be a place where looks do not matter (i’m not sure if that constitutes as feminism or not). i guess there’s society’s perceptions of what’s female or male that i should be more aware of. also, i had no idea peter pan was about that, but then again i haven’t watched the film since i was little..

        • Caperton says:

          Well, in this case, the three individuals look very much like the three prominent men in the community whose names they’re standing next to, so unless and until they start presenting as women, I think “those are guys” is a pretty safe statement.

        • DouglasG says:

          I shouldn’t judge a stage play by its film version (though it would be interesting to see the play compared to the pantomime).

    • Donna L says:

      Not to mention that not all trans women thought of themselves as being exactly “women” yet, prior to transition, to the extent that living in the world as a woman and being perceived and treated as such is part of actually being a woman.

  5. Wordwizard says:

    The old Ms. Magazine used to have a page sometimes, called NO COMMENT, for things like this.

  6. Angie unduplicated says:

    That looks like the first paragraph of a dystopian SF story.
    You did say this was fiction, didn’t you?
    OTOH, now we have uncovered the four economically and socially illiterate white males who hallucinate the irrational health care costs on those itemized statements from the hospital. Get the ropes out and I’ll hang ’em.

  7. Bunny says:

    Nothing says “honouring women” like three bland white dudes.*

    *I get that these are specific, real people, but could they have picked a more bland, personality-free image? It looks like more like a random stock photo than a picture of actual people being themselves.

  8. Athenia says:

    Donate and YOUR FACE will be on this billboard! WALLOFDONORS.com

  9. klaym0re says:

    Don’t you have a woman in your life who’s great?

    um… no?

  10. Emolee says:

    That ad seems really condescending to me. Like they are patting themselves on the back for patting women on the head. Or something.

  11. rain says:

    Literacy fail on the Women’s Wall of Honour home page:

    Join us as we’ve chosen to celebrate remarkable woman.

    Also, ugh to the honouring wives and mothers page. Not that I don’t think they deserve recognition, but unless I see at least a hint of understanding of how women’s unpaid labour props up our economy, I’m going to dismiss it as just more Mother’s Day card swill. Here’s a “special honour”, little lady, so we don’t have to think about gender equity and second shifts.

    And, now that I’ve looked up where the donations are going (see FAQ or Project TWENTY12), I’m even more disgusted. It’s fundraising for building construction. So we should donate $1200 towards the university’s capital budget because they say that the building “recognizes women”?

    • Bunny says:

      It is? Huh. That’s an impressively transparent bit of grabby money-seeking, right there. Now so much honouring women as waving them about as a prop to bring in money. I’d assumed money donated for the wallof was going to go to some significant charity or other. If not, I can think of some shelters, healthcare centres and other places that could do far more to “honour women” with a donation than this.

      Donate money so we can build a (large building we want to use with a) wall all about how much we love giving lipservice to women!

  12. Joedj says:

    When I read comments like these I wish you were all my sisters and we were sitting down to a big dinner.

  13. Bloix says:

    JIm Spatz is a wealthy real estate developer and prominent philanthropist in Halifax. Riva Spatz is his mother. This whole thing is about getting rich guys to make donations to this university in the name of their moms or their wives. The whole concept of “remarkable women” is incredibly patronizing – a ‘remarkable woman’ is a woman who gave birth to, or maybe is married to, or the daughter of, a rich guy.

  14. Ellen says:

    My favorite is the section “Why Honour a Woman?”

    It sounds so weird that they felt that needed to man-splain might deserve honor.

    Then the answer is pretty much – for anything you like that she happened to do.

  15. Bloix says:

    Ellen, I don’t they’re man-splaining. They’re talking to other men. The idea that they might be explaining something to a woman didn’t enter their heads. They’re reassuring the rich guys that this isn’t really about honoring women – it’s about rich guys showing off.

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