Ad Industry Hits Back at Fatherhood Activists

Los Angeles, CA–Background: A couple weeks ago I wrote: “The Super Bowl ads in general were pretty fair to men this year, but there was one major exception–Pepsi’s ‘Magnetic Attraction’ commercial. According to the MySpace Super Bowl ads description: “‘The Pepsi Stuff promo shows Justin Timberlake being drawn toward a woman and somehow pulled through space, off the ground,
by some magnetic force. He crashes and gets beat up by his strange experience being pulled through space and having close and sometimes painful encounters with immovable objects and experiencing near misses with death.’ “I understand slapstick humor but this was over the line–Timberlake is in severe pain in the ad, and gets painfully whacked in the nuts on three separate occasions. To watch the ad, click here.” I then suggested that readers who also thought the ad was over the line should express their views to Pepsi. I also provided contact information for BBDO, the agency which created the ad. I also noted, “To be fair, while BBDO does have a track record of anti-male commercials, they also produced the fine AT&T ad ‘Monkey,’ which can be seen here.” Advertising guru Richard Smaglick of assisted me in this. The Pepsi ad certainly wasn’t the worst anti-male ad I’ve seen, and I said so. However, I thought it was offensive and worth readers taking a moment to express their dissatisfaction. Yesterday Jonah Bloom, an editor and columnist at Advertising Age, one of the leading advertising trade publications, fired back at men’s and fathers’ activists. Bloom accuses us of–guess what?–“whining.” Bloom’s article is below, with my comments interspersed in italics and brackets. To write a Letter to the Editor of Advertising Age about Bloom’s attack on fatherhood activists, email or click here. When It Comes to Whining About Ads, Father Knows Best By Jonah Bloom Advertising Age, February 18, 2008 Within 48 hours of the Super Bowl ending, a small group of extremists made it to the inboxes of Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, and Cie Nicholson, her chief marketing officer. “Interesting that Justin Timberlake can get whacked in the balls on TV and that’s ‘funny,'” said one of the e-mails, referring to one of the Pepsi spots that aired in the game. “If Indra and Cie were whacked in the cl*t a few times over in their lives, they would not think this ad so amusing. I’m sure all of you would frown on having a female go through the same torture in a commercial.” [This is a common tactic used by our opponents–they pick out one extreme or rude letter and then feature it as if it is representative of what we are doing. Anybody who has followed my work even a little knows that whenever we confront companies, legislators, governmental agencies, or others with our protests, we are always scrupulously professional and polite. But not all of my readers are sane, as I’ve said on many occasions. I apologize to Ms. Nooyi and Ms. Nicholson.] This lunatic tract, purporting to be from a Bill Orr, was nastier than the others, but was far from being a one-off. Indeed, several dozen such e-mails were sent to executives at Pepsi; their agency, BBDO; or publications such as Ad Age and The New York Times. Nor was this the first such assault by this gaggle of men who feel the need to defend white men against ads (mostly) by white men that sometimes portray white men as somewhat stupid or incompetent. [This is another common tactic used by our opponents–they pretend that what we are doing is a “white male” or racial issue. Again, anybody who has followed our campaigns, my writing, or my media work knows that I do not now nor have I ever promoted ‘white male’ issues. I promote men’s and fathers’ issues, with no racial component, and am sometimes criticized for not mentioning “white male” issues. In none of the campaigns we have done about advertising has there ever been a hint about race. None of the many blog posts and columns I have written about advertising which denigrates men and fathers have been about race.] A loose coalition of these hombres against humor has formed in the past few years. Led by a guy called Richard Smaglick, co-founder of a group called Fathers and Husbands, they’ve attacked a few different ad agencies. [It is odd, and perhaps telling, that Bloom chooses to focus on Richard Smaglick when the protesters in all of the events Bloom describes are my readers and people who came through my website, Richard Smaglick is an intelligent and hard-working activist who thought up the Volvo campaign and took the idea to me. There is nothing about the Pepsi ad on Smaglick’s website, and he has not publicly done anything about it, though he did contact some reporters. It seems rather unfair to beat up on Richard.] In particular they spent several months “torturing,” as one ad exec put it, Arnold Worldwide, which was considered guilty of “contemptuous depictions” of men in its ads for Fidelity Investments. The group even tried to persuade Volvo not to give its account to Arnold. Volvo did the sensible thing — ignored the trumped-up charges and hired the agency. [I am sorry that the advertising executive felt that we were “torturing” Arnold Worldwide, but that was clearly not our intent. Arnold Worldwide had a track record of making advertisements which denigrate men and fathers, particularly their Fidelity advertisements. When Arnold was competing for an advertising contract with Volvo, Richard Smaglick suggested to me that this might be an opportune time to intervene. We politely explained to Volvo that we were unhappy with Arnold’s ads, and we suggested that Volvo give the advertising contract to another company. Our campaign was modestly successful. We knew that Arnold was the favorite to get the contract, and were not surprised when they got it. However, Volvo did pledge to protesters that its advertisements would remain “family-friendly,” and, as best we can tell, they have kept that commitment. The advertising series that Arnold did for Volvo uses the slogan “Life is better lived together” and is a likable series. To learn more about our Volvo campaign, click here or see my Adweek column Father Knows Best (3/12/07). As an aside, there is also other considerable evidence that we were happy to work with Arnold Worldwide to help them understand our concerns, and that Arnold was respectful and open to our message. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss the details publicly.] But that wasn’t the point for Smaglick and his acolytes. The point for them is that protesting against ads, particularly around Super Bowl time, is a cheap, easy way to get publicity. And it works, thanks to a seemingly infinite supply of journalists and bloggers (this publication and this columnist included, clearly) willing to indulge anyone with an e-mail account, a perceived slight against his person and three similarly minded internet buddies. [I’m not sure why Bloom makes a reference to “three similarly minded internet buddies”–our Volvo campaign generated over 3,000 calls and letters in protest. My 2004 campaign against Verizon’s anti-father ad “Homework” was publicized in over 300 newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, and also generated several thousand protest calls and letters.] The media’s complicity in all of this is only one of the depressing things about it. There’s also the sad fact that marketers and their agencies take these people seriously, scrapping ad campaigns based on “backlash” from a dozen consumers. The fear of offending anyone anywhere at any time has contributed to the mediocrity that is TV advertising today. Then there’s the fact that the people who use such tactics undermine their own case by endlessly parsing sales material until they find something offensive. Even these dads-get-stereotyped-too groups have worthwhile issues they want to raise — whether courts are biased against fathers in divorce cases, for example. But when they try to find hidden meaning in Justin Timberlake bumping into stuff, it’s hard to see them as anything but unhinged individuals with too much time on their hands. [I’m surprised that Bloom thinks that either Richard or I have to look long and hard to find ads which denigrate men and fathers. They are everywhere. How do I get the ones I feature? That’s easy–my readers send them to me. I launched the Verizon campaign after a grandma who listened to my radio show wrote me about it. The anti-male ads that I feature on my blog are almost always sent to me by a reader.] But the saddest thing about all this is the time and energy diverted from the more important ways advertising must be held to account. Right now, there are financial institutions with aggressive campaigns pushing credit to consumers whose debt loads are already crushing. Advertisers are spending billions to support an Olympics in a country with an abysmal human-rights record. There are companies with shocking environmental records making claims to environmental friendliness. There is a debate to be had about the merits and pitfalls of advertising drugs directly to consumers. Or, say, over whether a country that holds democracy dear should be happy its presidential primaries could come down to who spent the most on ads. Sorry, but Justin’s nuts just doesn’t rank, and even these advocacy groups should be big enough to see that. [Another common tactic opponents use is the “Isn’t there something more important than this?” argument. The central flaw in the argument is that you can always use this in almost any circumstance. I remember a particularly ridiculous example of this during our 2004 campaign against the “Boys are Stupid” children’s shirts and products. Our campaign made newspapers and media outlets in six different countries, and received tremendous coverage in the United States. We were successful in driving the products out of 95% of the retail stores which carried them at that time. I don’t remember whether it was a radio or television interview, but one person asked me, “There are millions of people starving to death around the world–shouldn’t you do something about that, instead of protesting these T-shirts?” If we judge things compared to the plight of Chinese political prisoners or Global Warming, neither our campaigns against anti-male advertising nor Mr. Bloom’s columns in Advertising Age would rank very high.] Again, to write a Letter to the Editor of Advertising Age to about Bloom’s attack on fatherhood activists, click on or click here.

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