Even bad publicity is good?

May 11, 2010 | Personal

The Hunky Dory ad campaign running lately has been getting a lot of attention in the news. The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland and the Advertising Authority of Ireland, for example, have voiced their disapproval, and a storm of criticism has drifted around the Irish spheres of social networking and blogs.

Quoth the IRFU marketing director, Pádraig Power: “tasteless and base, and quite simply unacceptable”.

The ads, for those of you interested, were of scantily-clad, well-endowed young women holding rugby balls. And there was a “witty” tagline added, such as, “Are you staring at my crisps?”

Ho hum, I say. I recall seeing these ads around my area, and my immediate reaction was not to level a charge of sexism against them, but to yawn, loudly and at length. The mantra that ‘sex sells’ is already so old in advertising that it might as well be prehistoric; using sex to sell potato crisps is hardly the worst of what people can see in this modern age. From a marketing perspective, I call this lazy, at best. It’s a cynical and rather unimaginative grab for people’s attention – or should I say men’s attention – with the presumption that the audience will be enticed into buying crisps because they have seen an image of an attractive woman next to said crisps.

Really, this is the best they can do? I honestly hope Largo Foods (makers of Hunky Dorys) didn’t pay much for the campaign. If it wasn’t for the outrage, this would be largely forgettable.

All other arguments aside, though, yes, this is a sexist ad campaign. (Forget for a moment that the images are objectifying women – some women feel empowered by such a thing, and so demonising it is a slap in the face to them. For that reason, the effects or lack thereof of objectification are not up for consideration here.) What makes it sexist is that there are only attractive women on display; are we to assume that Largo Foods are not interested in getting the female half of the population to buy their products? Where are the attractive men pandering to the female gaze, enticing them to part with their hard earned cash? If sex sells… why are they not using it to sell to women?

Raymond Coyle, the chief executive of Largo Foods, has already responded to the criticism with the usual non-apology: “I don’t think the ads are at all sexist but if people do think that then I apologise to them.” If people do… There is no if, Mr. Coyle. People are complaining very loudly, and displaying what sounds like wilful ignorance of that may not be the best strategy.

The biggest problem that I can see here is that the criticism leveled at the campaign makes much of how it’s sexist and objectifying and tasteless… but those images are quite tame in comparison to the American TV shows that are routinely piped into every home with a Skybox in Ireland. Has anyone called Sky to demand that they stop showing Desperate Housewifes, for example? How about America’s Next Top Model, or Big Brother? How about the ads for Special K, where a woman is seen choosing what to wear and, gasp, the viewer sees her without any pants on? Hunky Dorys hardly have a monopoly on sexist images, and, for all the moral outrage that this is bad for the kiddies, I’m sure the vast majority of children and teenagers with Internet access have already seen this and more. So where are the howls and cries that Google Image Search needs to be banned?

This leads me to consider that the criticism isn’t so much about sexism as it is about prudishness. The effects of Catholicism in Ireland die very hard, and the view that sex is taboo dies even harder. Sex sells, but sex is also forbidden; stepping over the constantly shifting line between merely risqué and outright tasteless is easier than you’d think. I believe people are complaining because Hunky Dorys are an easy target, and because they find any hint of sex to be verboten. It strikes me as being hypocritical – and the reinforcement of the idea that men and women should be ashamed of their natural desires is despicable.

Apparently, they’ve pulled the campaign entirely now. Largo Foods really didn’t have a choice there. The campaign has had an impact, and by canceling it, they can play the role of the penitent and gain back some goodwill from the various bodies that have been complaining. It’s a great shame, though. I would bet that they would never have gotten the same level of criticism if they had used both male and female models, and they might have generated a whole new debate on the disproportionate use of women vs. men as objects in advertising.

I’ve said before that ads need to be a lot more sophisticated nowadays – more than another tired iteration of ‘sex sells’, at least. But much as I didn’t especially like this campaign, the fact that it has been pulled bothers me a lot more. It’s a clear indication that we still have a ways to go to evolve as a healthy society.