How one agency is fighting back against the objectification of women in advertising

At first, Madonna Badger might seem like an odd choice to lead the fight against the objectification of women in advertising, having created provocative ads for Calvin Klein in the 1990s. She explains why she's leading the charge on the controversial issue.

Ad agency Badger & Winters, which specializes in marketing to women, is calling on advertisers to stop creating imagery that objectifies women by treating them as props, plastic, or sexual body parts.

To build support, the firm launched an unbranded video with the hashtag #WomenNotObjects on January 12, highlighting ads with "offensive images objectifying women" to start a conversation about the need to change how women are portrayed in ads.

On Monday, Badger & Winters told The Wall Street Journal that it was behind the video, which has since gone viral on social media. The hashtag was trending on Twitter on Tuesday.

Badger & Winters founder and CCO Madonna Badger conceived the provocative Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss underwear ads for Calvin Klein in the 1990s. But a number of changes in her life since then, including losing her children and parents in a house fire four years ago, have caused her to reassess her stance and purpose. She sat down with PRWeek to discuss.

Tell us about #WomenNotObjects.
Empathy and compassion as they relate to true innovation and marketing is important. That is the way to understand your consumer and gain true insight and stand in her shoes. The old paradigm of "make her feel bad about herself and her need for shinier hair or better skin and use this product or service to fix that problem" is gone. I remember in the 1980s when laundry detergent went through that. Tide ads would say, "You’re not a good mom if you don’t have clean clothes." So now you are not a good woman if you are not absolutely perfect. That is what this video and movement is about: ending the objectification of women.

But you have made ads objectifying women, for instance the Kate Moss underwear ads for Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
I got older and wiser and I had my own children and saw firsthand what that type of media can do to children. I have a company full of young women. And I see what they think about, what we talk about, and what is affecting them.

But more than anything is the explosion of media. When I did the Mark Wahlberg campaign, it was on one billboard in Times Square, one billboard in Los Angeles, and a series of magazines. That is a very limited reach. Today, we have everything across social media, from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter. We have embedded product placement and branded websites. Children ages 2 to 8 will see 25,000 advertisements in one year.

What spurred you to make this decision?
I founded Badger & Winters in 1994 and I love my job, but since my children and parents died, I have been searching for a greater purpose. I have seen advertising agencies making these decisions to objectify women as a way of standing apart, getting attention, and being disruptive. We as advertising agencies can stop.

Eleven percent of creative directors in agencies are women, and [women] are responsible for 70% to 80% of all purchases in this country. Women are making a lot of decisions about what is bought, so it would make sense to me that we would have better representation in ad agencies. But I also want to be clear that this is not a men-or-women issue; I think everybody suffers when women are objectified. It makes us all look at one another through unequal eyes, and that isn’t good for anybody.

The responsibility to say "no" lies with advertising agencies to not even come up with those ideas and also say, "There is a much better way here."

Do you think this will affect the number of clients that approach your firm?
We do not know if this will bring in new clients. We certainly welcome everyone at our door. I would rather have nothing than participate in anything I thought was going to hurt somebody else. There is no amount of money that is worth that.

Is this affecting your relationship with any clients on your roster?
Absolutely not. Calia by Carrie Underwood, which is a division of Dick’s Sporting Goods, is one of our clients. In response to #WomenNotObjects, I got an [email of support] from Lauren Hobart [EVP and CMO at Dick’s Sporting Goods], which made me cry it was so beautiful. One of our other clients is Avon, which has been empowering women for more than 128 years and they believe there is never a good reason to objectify anyone. All the brands we work with only support us, and this has strengthened our relationship with them.

Can you specify the kinds of campaigns your firm will avoid?
The criteria we have set for ourselves is that we will not treat women as props. That means where she has no choice and no voice. We will not overly retouch to the point where a woman looks plastic or is at an unattainable point of perfection with super shiny hair, totally perfect skin, or a thinned out body.

We will also not use a provocative body part – especially the kind we see used in social media, TV, or print ads. For example, we will not use a woman’s cleavage to sell freshly squeezed juice or a provocative mouth to sell yogurt. This idea of taking a person apart, which is interesting because there have been studies done that show women see themselves as a series of parts and not whole, human, and strong, is a serious issue for everyone.

We also want everyone to ask themselves: if this image was of my mom, wife, or co-worker, would I be OK with that? Would she be OK? How would that make her feel? This idea of basing judgment on how a person looks rather than who they are, what they can do, and how they feel, are the pieces that make us truly human.

Your video called out a number of brands –Burger King, Skyy Vodka, Carl’s Jr, and DirecTV -- for "objectifying" women in their ads. Have any of the brands you mentioned responded in any way?

What has the response been like?
As of [Tuesday] the video had amassed 460,000 views and more than 20 million impressions, and growing.

Ashton Kutcher posted a link to our video on Monday, and UN Women, along with a number of other organizations, pushed out our video to make the same point we were making: that this has gone too far.

This is way too common, but we can change it.

Posted by Ashton Kutcher on Monday, January 25, 2016

One person even made a parody video in response.

What firm supported the PR push behind this campaign?
Irwin Gail.

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