Friday, November 16, 2012

Sexualizing safe driving with "Listen to Bridget"

I somehow missed this campaign, which launched last summer, when it made the rounds of Canadian media.

The woman above is the face of a Halifax Harbour Bridges traffic safety campaign by M5. (Although it looks more like a Roxy Music album cover to me.)

"Bridget" uses sultry looks and saucy puns to appeal to drivers to slow down and keep their eyes on the road.

The complaints were fast and furious.

Halifax's Avalon Sexual Assault Centre wrote to Steve Snider, CEO of Halifax Harbour Bridges, that the campaign  “sexualizes and uses women as a means for the commission’s message... The ‘Listen to Bridget’ Twitter feed has resulted in responses that actively promote violence against women including Tweets that suggest that the worth of having a woman as the face of this campaign is that you can throw coins at her as you cross.”

Via The Herald
Soon, a petition went up at, demanding that HHB "Stop Using Sex to Educate Drivers on Safety." It attracted fewer than 500 signatures, but it managed to keep the protest in the news.

Of particular concern was the fact that the Twitter portion of the campaign was bringing out sexual harassment trolls as well:

Bea LeBlanc, chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said, "You know, I guess when you're looking at putting women down in that way, you're looking at all kinds of different things that could come out of that. Women shouldn't be portrayed in that way at all. Men certainly wouldn't be portrayed in that way."

HHB spokesperson Alison MacDonald responded that she didn't feel the campaign was using sex to sell. I think we're using risqué humour. (Using sex) was never our intent ... It's not targeted towards just men. It's targeted towards all adults.  I think that we're pleased with the feedback that we're getting. It is generating conversation. I think people are getting the message."

(Openfile reports that the campaign was created by an all-female team at M5.)

So, how bad is this? Well, I don't think the intentions were awful. If it was, in fact, created by women, they may have misjudged the way people would respond to a sexually aggressive female stereotype that they actually liked. After all, isn't that a kind of empowerment? And of course, "edgy" shit wins awards and notice from the circle-jerking advertising world.

This is a typical ad creative (and strategic) blind spot: You are not your audience. I'm sure there were a few young women who found the campaign cool. Or young men who found it amusing. But this was not a youth-oriented campaign that runs above the toilets in nightclubs. It is a public service campaign on two major arterial bridges in a major Canadian city. All kinds of people are bound to encounter it — male and female, young and old, laissez-faire and socially concerned — and it was inevitable that the sexualized imagery and tone would rub several of them the wrong way.

Sex appeal is a very easy way to get attention in advertising. But that doesn't mean it's the right way. 

I've been talking a lot recently about the power of sexuality in advertising, even calling in a judgement-impairing intoxicant for some consumers. I'm not convinced that it mixes with safe driving.

I'll close with an interesting perspective about the campaign from @kinga_p from Fuse Marketing Group:
Maybe it's because I've been working in marketing for so long or maybe it's due to my nonsense Polish upbringing, but I am just not the type of person who gets up in arms over every little thing that COULD be perceived as offensive. But, since I too can get sucked in by the online whirlwind of anger over a company’s/brand's/celebrity's insulting or insensitive comment or action, I have developed a rather scientific approach to help me determine if something is indeed offensive and if I need to do something about it, like write a letter or a blog post. I call it Kinga's Should Have Known Better Offensive Scale and it is compromised of the following tests:  
Test #1: Is this offensive to the intended target market?Test #2: Is this offensive to the majority of the population?  Test #3: Does this treat a group/subject with disrespect/insensitivity?  
With a piece of marketing, I give more weight to test #1, but if the campaign in question gets a "yes" to any of the above tests, it is offensive and you should have known better. 

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