NEW YORK — With her agency Badger & Winters vowing never to create imagery that objectifies women, Madonna Badger aims to trigger an international conversation about sexism in advertising.
The project, #WomenNotObjects, stemmed from a simple Google search for “objectification of women” in advertising in mid-November. Plenty of ads turned up featuring women in compromising situations, so Badger and her business partner Jim Winters created a video featuring varioius women holding copies of ads and calling for change. The initial plan was to post the video anonymously, which they did on Jan. 11. In an interview Friday, Badger said, “We wanted it to be judged on (a) its content, not its context. But (b) we really wanted to see what the reaction was about it, outside of the realm of the industry. Now we’re coming forward saying it was us, we were the ones who posted it because we are taking a stand today that we will never objectify a woman again in any of the advertising, content, posts — any form of communication that we do for any of our clients.”
Featuring controversial ads from Tom Ford, Balmain, American Apparel, Burger King and Carl’s Jr. among others, the video had 5.3 million impressions as of Monday afternoon. Also seen in the two-and-a-half-minute clip was last year’s Dodge Ram Truck ad that used Sports Illustrated swimsuit models for what was meant to be a recreation of Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The spot closes with, “I am your mother, daughter, sister, coworker, ceo. Don’t talk to me that way.”
The United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality, UN Women, was among the first to pick up on the #WomenNotObjects video and tweeted a link to its 856,000 followers. The Huffington Post also put the word out via Twitter. “Our goal was to now come forward and say, ‘This is from an advertising agency. This is from the people who have been guilty quite frankly in the past of objectifying women and men in a way that was not acceptable.’ We’re coming forward and saying, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore. We know that it does harm and our job is to do no harm,'” Badger said.
Noting that women still make about 75 percent of all purchasing decisions and only 11 percent of advertising creatives are women, Badger said the ripple effect of objectifying women in advertising causes other problems. “The average age of a little girl who goes on a diet is seven, and over 81 percent of 10-year-olds think they’re fat.” Badger cited “real actual harm because, when we objectify women, women tend to self objectify. So we turn that lens on ourselves.”
Badger continued, “This goes back to advertising and that old paradigm, which is, ‘There is something wrong with you. We’re going to create shame and anxiety inside of you and then we’re going to provide the product, goods, service or brand to fix that anxiety.’ That paradigm is gone. The new paradigm that we believe in is, ‘Understand, listen, have compassion, get inside of her life, understand her value system and then put your brand out there in such a way that makes sense with her value system.'”
To highlight women’s buying power, Badger noted the Nielsen statistic that more women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined. In striving to reach advertisers across all industries and not just fashion, Badger & Winters stressed four key points. “The first way is through props so when you look at an image, ad or content on social media, ask yourself, ‘Does this woman have a choice or a voice?’ Second point — plastic — has this woman been retouched to the point of perfection, a living doll that is completely unattainable? The third way is parts. ‘Is this a sexually provocative part?’ We especially see this on social media with cleavage, or a woman’s bottom [featured] in a sponsored post. So much so actually that women see themselves as a series of parts instead of whole. We really feel that women need to be seen and treated as a whole, human and strong. The fourth question, which I really think is easiest, ‘What if that was your mother? What about your sister or daughter? Your coworkers? How would you feel if that person were in that social media spotlight?'”
Asked if her work in the past was difficult to reconcile in that she helped to create this image of beauty to some degree, Badger said, “When I worked at Calvin Klein [in the Nineties], I was 27. I was barely able to rent a car. So I didn’t have a lot of knowledge, none of us did, as to what exactly the effects were. Through my career with a lot of my clients, especially with the work we have done with Avon using real women, real representatives, we’ve gone on the street to listen to women. We’ve really taken it to a whole other level of what beauty advertising can be and should be quite frankly. And not showing these flawless, perfect images of women,” Badger said. “With Living Proof, one of our clients, Jennifer Aniston, is a part-owner and her hair [in ads] is unretouched. That’s part of the deal with them. Do I find it difficult to reconcile? Only if I didn’t do something about it. I’m willing to take responsibility for whatever my part has been but more importantly I’m willing to take responsibility for hopefully putting a voice to this and changing the way that we all look at advertising and how women are used in it.”
Objectifying women can lead to young women and girls turning the lens on themselves, which can affect their cognitive power and self-esteem, according to Badger. It’s no wonder that books resonate that urge women to articulate and pursue their goals, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” Mika Brzezinski’s “Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth” and Katty Kay’s and Claire Shipman’s “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assirance — What Women Should Know”. “Well, if you had low self-esteem, low self-confidence, would you raise your hand, would you ask for that raise, would you make that suggestion? So it’s affecting equality.”
The #WomenNotObjects initiative seems to be in step with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls #AskedHerMore at the Golden Globes, and Women’s Health editor in chief Amy Keller Laird’s recent ban of “bikini body” and “drop two sizes” from the magazine’s cover. And as “Killing Us Softly” filmmaker Jean Kilbourne has noted throughout her 40 years of research, misogynist advertising can lead to violence, sexual harassment and the mistreatment of women. Pointing to the effectiveness of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and breast cancer awareness initiatives, Badger said objectifying women in advertising deserves similar attention. “When Playboy took naked women out of their magazine [last fall], you knew, ‘Game over.’ It was about the Internet and what was happening there was unstoppable. So discussion and awareness is really what we can do.”
Badger & Winters has done such work for Avon, Coty, Chanel, Diane von Furstenberg and Vera Wang among others. Winters said, “It’s rare that you get to do something in life, much less in business that you just know is right, that you are absolutely positive is the right thing.”
Having lost her three daughters and her parents in a 2011 fire, Badger said this project in part allows her to pay tribute to her family. “The thing is that you don’t get past it, but you do get through. That’s really what’s been happening to me. I’m getting through and I’m walking through the pain,” she said. “I still have rough days and the holidays are not my best time of year, for sure. But little by little, I have learned not necessarily how to move past it, but how to live with it. That’s the difference. I’m getting better at living with the truth. And the truth is the truth. You can’t change it.”
Aware of the empathy that many people had for her, Badger said, “I’ve been looking for my purpose. It’s certainly bigger than making money. There is great dignity in our work. I’m proud of it, and this company which I built and now Jim and I have been building for almost a decade. I’m proud of the differences I’ve made in a lot of people’s lives, for sure. But I wanted to find something that was bigger than me, bigger than the fire and that could be a true service to people that could have lasting effect.”