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#WomenNotObjects: how objectification is damaging young boys

Sex in advertising is a cliché by now. “Sex Sells” was a mantra (and still is for many) for our industry, and one movement is saying no in an effective campaign, which may seem a little more important after the recent US election.

#WomenNotObjects was launched by Manhattan agency Badger & Winters in January to end objectification in advertising, to stop the harm caused by sexual objectification, to teach girls and young women that they have worth and to support brands that empower women. The campaign has put out ads and videos aimed to combat sexism in advertising, including “What Our Kids See,” a powerful tool that uses children’s negative responses to certain sexual ads, with the approval of the kids’ parents.

The Women Not Objects site currently has a petition on it to demand that Cannes Lions refuse ads that objectify women. The general rules of the festival states that they may refuse or withdraw entries which offend “national sentiments, religious sentiments or public taste.” The petition is trying to get Cannes Lions to enforce the latter.

Madonna Badger is not just concerned about girls being affected by sexually charged advertising, but also about young boys, because it affects both genders at young ages.

During the “What Our Kids See” video, Badger interviewed both girls and boys, and she really took notice how the boys were uncomfortable seeing images of objectified and nearly nude women.

“Disgusting,” said one boy. “I don’t want to look at this picture anymore,” said another, while one boy said flat out, “I don’t want to talk about it, it makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Speaking to The Drum at the 3% Conference in New York, she noted that it was interviews with those boys that helped steel her resolve to keep addressing both girls and boys.

“I saw first-hand how it affected little boys. When they saw those images they way that they did shut down. They knew intuitively that something was wrong. They knew in their bodies that something was wrong. They just wanted to leave. They knew it wasn't right. They knew it was inappropriate. They even said those words,” said Badger, who noted that the boys were between five and seven years old.

“What is that doing to them in terms of their burgeoning sexuality? They way that they look at women overall? Suddenly, there's this separation between good women, like mommies and sisters and babysitters, and bad women, half-naked, half-dressed, whatever it might be. Maybe that division is happening at a really early age,” she continued.

Badger said that the controversial images could inform how boys react to women and that informs their emotional reaction as well. She wondered what effect sex in advertising has on boys’ emotional well-being and their vulnerabilities, even going so far as to say it might be highly emasculating.

As an industry, and a society, we have glossed over the issue for a long time. Sex has been selling, even as it repulses many. The Carl’s Jr. ads, the many fragrance and underwear ads, the beverage ads are taken for granted by the industry and many don’t even see the sexism anymore. Badger chalked some of it up to the great disparity in the presidency, the senate and the C-suite, with men being in charge at nearly every level in much greater numbers than women.

“That's not okay, because we are one humanity...I talked just a tiny bit about this earlier with the 3% (Conference) people, but we live in a world with 32 different gender definitions. It's really time to start looking at ourselves as human beings and that men are as vulnerable as women are. Men are as emotional, as sweet, as mean, as kind, as loving, as shallow, as deep, as smart, as dumb, as everything under the tree,” she said in comparison.

Badger noted the GE ad where a young woman is working on a jet engine and her parents and brother are there, and the brother has to be the stupid one asking dumb questions to make the woman look smarter. He’s emasculated so she can rise up. Badger sees that as a problem just as much as the overtly sexist ads. She knows people like ads that are more inclusive and wants to promote more of them.

“The ads I think that people love the most are the ones where they aren't following a stereotypical script. The gay family in Campbell's, for example. Those are the kind of things that we go, ‘Yeah, I want to be with them',” she said.

“What we all need to realize is that doing great work has no gender — that doing the right thing has no gender and finding the right creative and doing the right creative has no gender. That this isn't about a gender-specific issue. It's about an intellectually, emotionally on-target issue,” added Badger, saying that we need to recognize that hurting anyone or portraying anyone as less than equal is inherently wrong and needs to stop.

Badger noted that we are offended when advertising degrades other races, like the incredible backlash a Chinese washing detergent ad received after it essentially made a black man white. She wonders why we are allowed to call that offensive but we can’t with sexist ads.

“We've shown over and over again in all of the actual data driven research that we have, that sex does not sell. It doesn't increase purchase intent and it reduces the way people feel about your brands — and brand reputation. When people say sex, do they really mean selling cantaloupes at Fairway by putting them together in the shape of a woman's breasts and making a melon joke? I don't think so. Objectification is a very straight-line definition. It means reducing a human being down to the level of an object. It's just time for it to stop.”

To help stop it, Badger said we need to have ongoing discussions with our children about what’s right and wrong about advertising. When a child sees something potentially offensive, we ask them what they like or don’t like about it. Essentially, we need to get media savvy with children about the correct and incorrect way to use it.

While kids might be a main focus for the #WomenNotObjects campaign, adults out there are making progress. The “Are You Beach Body Ready?” billboard campaign was banned in London after getting 70,000 petitions. Brands like Aerie have body-positive campaigns, Dove promotes body diversity, and Alicia Keyes refuses to wear makeup. It’s a shift in culture that gives the #WomenNotObjects a boost.

Badger says that everyone in the industry needs to step back before they use sexuality as an advertising tool. She has seen it firsthand and it made her reflect and take the position she has today.

“In my experience as a manager of people, as a creative director, as somebody that works with clients, as someone that's objectified women...In all those things the more honest I am about my own vulnerability, the easier time everyone has of looking at their own. I do it in a way not to absolve myself by any stretch, but just to say, 'This isn't about shame or blame.' I'm not a preacher man, or preacher woman. I'm not here to bestow whatever…I've done it. I just want to talk about it.”

Additional reporting by Doug Zanger.

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