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badvertising :: in bad taste

hubert sacy, director general, educ'alcool
there are a number of reasons why people might not like to live in montreal. i personally find that good outweighs the bad, but terrifyingly cold winters, apartments that have never been properly maintained, and a bureaucracy that could generously be described as "perplexing" are likely to have worn a few people down.

but one of the great things about not living in montreal is not having to deal with the sort of people who end up in positions of power in groups like educ'alcool, an organisation that helps encourage young drinkers to favour moderation over hedonistic indulgence. the organisation has done some clever ad campaigns in years past, some genuinely funny and some cringe-worthy and effective. the thing that has made them effective is that they've presented those drink far in excess as the butt of jokes, or as a source of embarrassment for themselves and their friends.

this year, however, they decided to go in a different direction.

the horror.

on one level, i can see where teens would find this funny: what's scarier to a fresh-faced [we assume] young man than the idea of giving his phone number to an ugly old woman? but therein lies the problem: this time, it's not the drinker who's the object of ridicule, but the woman. she's clearly the focus here, since we can't even see the face of the young drinker. nor has he done anything that will ruin either his night or his life; at worst, he's looking at a few irritating phone calls as a souvenir of his night out, which are likely to be a source of laughs for him and his friends. he's not the pathetic one in this situation. that distinction is for the sad old woman, desperately trying to pretend that she's still a young fox and to make up for her obvious shortcomings with inappropriately tight clothes and garish makeup.

a montreal professor of communications wrote to the organisation to educ'alcool to make them aware that the ad reeked of sexism and ageism. this is the response he got from them:

Dear Sir: Thank you for your so courteous email and for your interest in Éduc'alcool.
As a Professor of Communications, you are certainly aware of a few principles and will certainly sensitive to a few facts.
Here are the hard facts:
1) This campaign has been tested in four focus groups 2 of young men and 2 of young women from the target group. It has ranked over 9/10 and no one ever saw any "ageism" nor any "sexism" in it. Moreover all (with no exception) considered it was a humouristic and very efficient way to denounce excessive drinking without being moralistic.
2) Besides, this campaign is a remake of the one we did several years ago in all Cegeps and universities in Quebec. Tens of thousands of students has seen it. The evaluation of all establishment was crystal-clear. All ranked it very high and no one has seen any trace of ageism or sexism. That's in real life.
3) Unless we are mistaken, you are not exactly in the target group of this campaign
4) We also adapted this same campaign for the public at large. Posters were posted in all SAQ 410 stores all over the province for six weeks. A couple of miullion people have seen it. Not one single person said it was ageism or sexism
5) Since we launched this campaign a few days ago we only received one critic and loads of congratulations.
And now let's ask ourselves a few questions:
Could it be that some people don't make a difference between a caricature and first-degree interpretation?
Could it be that some people can't see that the situations are so exagerated that it's obviously not serious and it's only humour?
Could it be the ageism and sexism would be in the eye of the person who looks at the campaigm and not in the campaign itself?
Than you again for your comments and kindest regards
Hubert Sacy, C.M., C.Q.
Directeur général
606, rue Cathcart, bureau 1000
Montréal, Québec H3B 1K9
Téléphone: 514 787-5830
Et rappelez-vous, la modération a bien meilleur goût

the ad itself is irritating. it reinforces a lot of popular, mean-spirited ideas about women, especially older women. the joke is that the woman [again, the one who is clearly the focus of the ad] is gross because she is aging, but still trying to be sexy like younger women are sexy. she's repulsive because she can't just accept that she's past her prime and has no business chatting up young men in bars. if this is such a disaster, it's because those ideas are right and because the fault for the woman's obvious unattractiveness lies with her alone, and not a culture that tells them they are valueless after a certain age, or that the only way to be sexy is to try, increasingly desperately, to appear young.

but you know what? i see ads that reinforce those messages every day. so do all of us. i don't like them and they make me lose respect for the company responsible, and they don't keep me up at night.

hubert sacy's response had me grinding my teeth while I tried to sleep. it's rude, condescending and ignorant, three things that i despise in human beings at the best of times, and something that should be unacceptable in someone presenting himself as a spokesperson for a government-supported organisation. [educ'alcool does not get government funding, however it does have a partnership with several government departments. [think of nbc's decision to cut ties with donald trump over his incendiary comments about mexicans and immigrants; corporately, perhaps even more than personally, we are judged by the company we keep.]

sacy's argument clearly rests on two things: he himself does not believe that there is any reasonable grounds to believe the ad is sexist or ageist; no one else has expressed any concern over the ad, especially within its target group.

the first point is clearly ridiculous: the ad would not be funny if the woman did not appear old, ugly and unattractive. that is the joke. she clearly fulfills stereotypes of the "cougar", right down to her too-tight animal print top. she is a recognizable caricature [sacy says so himself]. that's the joke. it's too easy for a young man to be ensnared by this sort of woman.

the second part is an obvious dodge. witness my statement above. i'm a feminist and someone who is far more attentive to communications of all types than the average. i'm someone who's worked in advertising and communications for many years. but if i complained every time i saw something offensive in an advertisement, i'd have time for little else, including sleep. yes, there are examples of ads that set off a widespread public reaction [witness bud light's "no means up for whatever"], but those are generally larger scale campaigns, with big brands associated with them, so that it's easier to mobilise public opinion online. the educ'alcool ad reaches a market of, at maximum, seven million people in one province of canada. harder to kickstart something. the vast majority of people who see the ad as dumb or offensive will simply roll their eyes and move on with their day. which is fine with hubert sacy, since we're all too old for our opinions to count.

the fact that the ad played well for 18-22 year olds of both genders isn't evidence of anything except that the tropes it exploits are so ingrained, so common, that young men and women just accept them as normal. men are socialised to think that giving their phone number to an older woman trying to act young, or a woman who is both old and ugly is among the worst things that could happen to them. young women are socialised to think that turning into that woman is something they need to fear.

but even if they'd chosen to run the ad- after all, it's funny, and educ'alcool, as an organisation targeting young people, shouldn't feel any responsibility to come up with ideas that are new, fresh, or challenging- i think that sacy and co. missed an opportunity to run a parallel campaign. after all, binge drinking isn't just a problem among young men, but among young women. and clearly, from their selection of target groups, young women are an equal part of the target audience for this ad. so why not create an ad that speaks to them as well?

the "creepy old man" stereotype is almost as prevalent as the "pathetic old lady". after all, between 1,700 and 1,800 cases of sexual assault were reported in quebec in 2008 [92% of whom were women] and it's estimated that only 10% of sexual assault are actually reported to police. the group most likely to be targeted for sexual assault are those between 18-25, which is absolutely the target market of educ'alcool. i think that most people would feel that getting raped is as serious [possibly more!] than giving your phone number to an ugly old woman.

but, even better, i think monsieur sacy, who clearly thinks very highly of himself, since he's able to lecture a university professor who specialises in the subject about what ads actually mean, missed the opportunity to get his face out there, to become a real star. after all, he's old, bald and ugly. what could be more in keeping with the parallel caricature to the woman in the ad that was created?

and so, i present to you, the more like space vision for the "flip side" ad campaign for educ'alcool:

as the organisation itself says; "moderation is always in good taste" and moderation means maintaining an equilibrium, or balance. so go ahead, m. sacy, and run your hilariously funny ad about giving an ugly old broad your phone number. but moderate that by admitting that young women might run into problems with creepy old people as well? i give you [and dominic, who created the visual gives you] full rights to use this image for ads placed in stores, in newspapers, in magazines and online. we won't even ask you to give us credit, because it would make us that damn happy that you thought to use this ad. [of course, if you'd like to throw some coins our way, say, the same amount you paid the agency who came up with that first ad, we're not going to say no.] the best thing we can do as old, increasingly irrelevant people, is to lead the youth by example. and if you don't want to set the example of refusing to fall back on sexist, ageist, insulting gimmicks, then i think the least you can do is really put yourself out there to remind others of the potential dangers of binge drinking. 


SoSuSam said…
Thank you so much for highlighting this issue and then dissecting it so clearly and intelligently. And for the perfect young woman/older man version! I hope you find a way of getting this under M. Sacy's nose. As someone who worked in advertising forever, I am shocked at his response. Yes, the target audience's reaction is critical; but ignoring input from experts (such as a uni professor who specializes in the subject) and insulting a large, non-target demographic is completely unprofessional. There are ways to execute exactly this same concept without, as you pointed out, making the "pathetic old lady" the focus.
Kate MacDonald said…
Very glad you enjoyed it! I admit that I actually did some research because, at first, I was certain his response must have been edited. However, sadly, it seems to be authentic. I tried prodding Educ'alcool a little on Twitter, but thus far they've declined to respond. I guess I'm not their target market, so I don't matter. :-D

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