By ANTONIA CZINGER
December 5, 2011
Despite cultural shifts and the rise of equality, most would-be parents still strongly prefer boys to girls. While this trend is most persistent in 2nd and 3rd world countries such as China and India, a 2011 Gallup poll reveals that boys are still by far No. 1 in the United States as well. The problem: this sex preference both devalues the life of girls and can cause dangerous gender imbalances. In order to upend this problematic trend, the magazine Fastcompany has attempted a creative solution: it recently challenged some top advertising agencies and designers to create an ad campaign to “rebrand women” and garner support for the birth of female babies. But what does it mean to “rebrand women?” What are the inherent risks involved? And can these risks be avoided to create an effective and powerful campaign?
There are those who cringe at the very idea of marketing baby girls, and they have a point. Babies are human beings, not commodities to be sold, and it makes sense to worry that ads would blur this distinction. Since “marketing” often objectifies and stereotypes, they fear this well-meaning campaign may nevertheless subject baby girls to similar treatment. However, the goals of these ads differ dramatically from those of traditional ads. When a woman is “marketed” to sell a product, she is used as stimulus to achieve a certain end. When Paris Hilton strips down to her underwear and eats a hamburger, she is used to pique the consumer’s interest in sex to spur a purchase. In contrast, these ads neither arouse the viewer nor push an external product. Instead, they are intended to dispel negative misconceptions about women that obscure their true value.
Ads need not objectify or demean their subjects. For example, the relief agency CARE uses female subjects and the words “I am powerful” to promote expanding opportunities for women in need. Although the issue in those ads is “aiding” versus “having” the girl, they similarly foster a desire to engage with the female subjects shown. Obviously, the challenges involved in creating respectful pro-baby girl ads are thornier than those CARE faced. When advocating for the value of an entire gender one can easily fall into the trappings of stereotypes. Additionally, there is the risk that people see these ads and decide to try for a girl simply because she is portrayed as “trendy.” Therefore, these ads must not only portray women with respect, but also take care not to limit the value of women to a few privileged representations and avoid trendiness.
While avoiding the perpetuation of harmful female stereotypes, these ads must also take into consideration their effect on baby boys. Boys are facing new challenges in this more equal, postindustrial society and also need our support. As Fastcompany pointed out, girls outperform boys in school, and while it is great that girls are doing well, the gender gap itself is not. Consider: in a 2010 psychological study conducted by Bonny Hartley and Robbie Sutton, boys as young as seven thought they were less focused, able, and successful than girls. If boys look at these pro-baby girl ads and think they are undervalued, they are less likely to fulfill their potential. Moreover, they may turn to sexism in order to reconfirm their identity and feel empowered. These ads must avoid alienating boys in order to prevent backlash and foster an accepting community.
The criterion for successfully and respectfully “marketing women” is difficult to meet, so it comes as little surprise that not all ads generated by the Fastcompany challenge succeed. 72andSunny literally turns girls into accessories by showing us a fictional IPhone app called Girlify. The Cramer-Krasselt campaign perpetuates negative stereotypes by using made up statistics (i.e. boy’s are 75% more likely to set something you love on fire) that reinforce the idea that boys are too rambunctious and that little girls must be docile and sweet. Luckily for Fastcompany, other ads do seem to meet the criterion and successfully promote baby girls. Leo Burnett defies stereotypes about women by picturing Amy Poehler with the words “My father wanted a boy. He did not think girls were funny.” Everybody Shout’s second ad, featuring stick figures in various sex positions, uses a clever tagline to effectively make its point without pigeonholing either gender (“It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just do it for her.”—promoting both female babies and female pleasure).
Advertising can be a powerful tool for empowering baby girls and bringing about greater equality. However, potential ads must be screened carefully to avoid the many harmful risks.
Antonia Czinger is a junior in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.