Talking Vaginas and Football Heroes: Gender, Race and Advertising – The Feminist Wire

Talking Vaginas and Football Heroes: Gender, Race and Advertising

Summer’s Eve has pulled its controversial “Hail to the V” ads amidst enormous criticism from feminists, bloggers, YouTube watchers and…well, just about everybody. Thank goodness because there is nothing more disgusting than a talking vagina. Think about it. No one needs to see that.  Except the people at Summer’s Eve who seemed to think talking vaginas were a great marketing ploy. At least Schick Quattro Trim Style commercials use subtlety to get their point across – women pass by potted plants and the plants change shape. And whomever in the Summer’s Eve marketing camp came up with the phrase “vertical smile” should be banned from ever making another commercial.

As was widely reported – and commented upon – Summer’s Eve even decided to racialize the vaginas. The Summer’s Eve Hail to the V: Lady Wowza commercial was a masterpiece of sexism, racism and stereotyping. The voice was full of stereotypical “black” inflection; she was one step away from Ebonics. She sounded like what a non-black advertiser believed a black woman sounds like. Who was this supposed to appeal to? Certainly not the millions of educated black women who speak standard English.

To make matters worse, Summer’s Eve decided to tap the Latina market with their Leopard Thong commercial. This one started with “Aye, yaye, yaye, yaye – another layover?”  What really put this one over the top was the ending – a fast-paced rant (in Spanish) about the terrors of a leopard print thong. Again, who was the market here?  Not the millions of educated Latinas who speak uninflected, standard English.

Using racial stereotypes in advertising is, of course, nothing new. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, consumers could purchase items like “Picaninny Freeze” watermelon treats and were confronted by the well-known images of Aunt Jemima and Rastus (of Cream of Wheat fame). Rastus and Aunt Jemima have gotten makeovers to make them less offensive but we can still find them on grocery shelves. Into this already toxic arena, Summer’s Eve was simply one of the latest entrants.

Earlier this year, football star Calvin Johnson starred in a commercial for Acura. The ad starts with Johnson in football gear. He is quickly undressed and stands, in his underwear, with his arms outstretched.  He is then dressed – in shirt, tie, expensive watch, a suit.  The tagline for the ad: “It works with people, it works with cars…Aggression in its most elegant form.” There are so many things wrong with this commercial. First, Johnson is undressed and then re-dressed by faceless whites (we see their hands) as if he is simply a mannequin. Second, the exploitation of Johnson’s body – black, strong, muscular and standing nearly naked in front of an audience – remindsa us of the exploitation of the slave auction block.  Lastly, at the end of the ad Johnson is made into an inanimate object – he is, like a car, a symbol and object of aggression.  Given the long, long history of using the supposed hyper-masculine and aggressive behavior of black males as an excuse for lynching and incarceration, this is particularly disturbing. He only becomes acceptable (not overtly aggressive) when dressed by whites in a Western business suit and stands still, one hand in his pocket.

Taken together, the Acura and Summer’s Eve commercials demonstrate a continuing lack of sensitivity to the histories of people of color. In an effort to reach a diverse consumer audience, advertisers throw “ethnic” people into their ads without considering what their ads are actually communicating.  The Picaninny Freeze, Aunt Jemima and Rastus ads of the past were obviously racist. But they didn’t attempt to be anything else – they were aimed at a white audience, which was (very often) racist itself. Ironically, the old advertisers seem more self-aware than current ones. They used racist images because they knew those images would resonate with their intended consumers. Today’s advertisers use racist images and alienate their consumers.

While I am glad that Summer’s Eve has finally seen the light and pulled the ads, we still need to question the advertising culture that made the ads seem like a good idea in the first place. And, of course, they did succeed in one respect: we have all been talking about their product for weeks.