Innovation & Design

Man-Eaters of Madison Avenue


Being a modern girl is liberating. We aren't restricted like the citizens of the last millennium, back when single people actually had to have feelings and be in a "relationship" to get some action. If you wanna be a hip brand today, here's your ticket: Girls like it hot, fast, and irrelevant. At least, that's the word in the advertising scene where brands such as Reebok, Sketchers, and Armani Exchange show girls hungrily taking down men in their print campaigns. Flip through an Ellegirl magazine, and you'll find one man-eating female after another. Somehow, someone convinced advertisers that girls want to be represented as cold, aggressive players.

Here's our question: What street corner are you getting your market research from? "Hooking up" with no emotional attachment is messy -- messy for the girls, messy for the guys, messy for the mind. Girls know that anyone who habitually seeks out men this way has something broken inside.

GENDER BENDERS. But calm down, this article isn't about hooking up. It's about a trendy marketing tactic we call "advancing backwards" -- when advertisers strive to put an innovative female edge into their ads by reversing and recycling old-school gender clichés.

The "modern girls" in these ads are male archetypes in female wrappers. Ironically, they exhibit the very attitudes and behaviors that girls find frustrating about guys -- aggression, the need to dominate, lack of emotion, and egocentricity.

In the case of this Reebok ad, the backwards marketing maneuver turns the girl into the emotionally detached playboy. While companies may think this man-eater represents a strong, independent girl of the future, it's quite the opposite. From a girl's perspective, Ms. Reebok isn't trendy; she's messed up. She's in denial and desperate to be the center of attention. When girls see an ad like this, they don't feel inspired. They don't say "I want those shoes so I can be dominant like her." Cold and insensitive girls are a drag.

SEXUAL DEVOLUTION. When you flip the gender struggle, when "you dominate me" becomes "I dominate you," when "you win" becomes "I win," when seeking strength through retaliation becomes the theme -- you're not evolving, you're inverting. It's a new face on an old stereotype. It turns girls off.

Check out the marketing for Trojan's Elexa, all based on the "woman's perspective." The advancing backwards maneuver in this product's sexual revolution is based on retaliation."You got yours, now I get mine." Elexa girls demand enhanced physical performance from their mates. There's nothing fun, or happy, or intimate about the Elexa sensual portrayal. It's really not even sexy. It's domineering and resentful. It is "I" focused, not "we" focused. She's a girl version of the guy we would never want to date.

Make no mistake, girls love guys. We love to flirt, talk about, tease, spoil, argue with, make up, and make out with them. In fact, guys are the one topic that seems to pique universal interest among girls. So the guy-girl game is a rich context for advertising. But marketers dabbling in this area seem to have jumped from one ugly extreme to another: The lovesick obsessive insecure girl to the equally needy, jaded, instant gratification-seeking man-eater.

GIRL VALUES. What would constitute a marketing revelation in the portrayal of the girl boy interaction? Ironically, the things that ads have eliminated would be powerful -- sincerity, spontaneity, genuine feelings, passion, expression, caring, family feeling, honesty, loyalty, trust, and commitment. These things make girls feel alive.

This authenticity isn't sappy, stupid, or yesterday's news. What's old is unhealthy dependence -- when a girl doesn't have enough inner confidence to maintain her identity in a relationship. What is equally unappealing is the new portrayal of independence as behaving as if you don't need or care about people. What is forward thinking is interdependence and strong, grounded, happy people charging out into life together.

If you want to advance forward try this: balance, values, humanity, and heart.


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