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Selling Sex (and Other Things) at Cannes

Sex sells and it seems that Cannes have been in on the act as well this year.

The themes and titles have developed from that of gender issues to one of sex and relationships. Sex: The Final Frontier: Foresight meets Foreplay, Sex, Lies and Advertising, The Erotics of Branding, The Art of (Brand) Seduction, and (my favorite and perhaps the most bizarre) – From Roman Emperors to Roman Orgies.

Understanding that sexuality is a selling tool for brands across generations and that it draws large crowds to sessions in the first place, it’s interesting to note the contrast between the strong, perhaps unintentional in some cases, messages around sex and the ask for gender equality in advertising.

The #womennotobjects campaign was launched by Madonna Badger, who gave an impassioned and tear-jerking presentation in the Lumiere theatre on Monday. Following the death of her children and parents in a house fire, and after some soul searching, Badger decided to make it her life mission to change the way women are represented in advertising.

‘Sexualised ads are harming kids’, is the headline used in the campaign to get us to sit up and take notice. But the sexualisation of ads is actually part of something bigger – they appear systemic in the fact that men still dominate this (and most other) industries – particularly at the top. Despite gender equality themes in recent years and more female focused awards and groups, it’s evident we’re still not on equal footing.

In a society that doesn’t get shocked easily, many campaigns are using children to illustrate what is wrong in society – #womennotobjects uses this, just as #Likeagirl did in 2015, Don’t get me wrong, children shouldn’t be forced to see half naked women and men being objectified while walking down the street – if we have a watershed for this type of thing on TV, then why shouldn’t we have a censor on material that is shown on our billboards and in digital? If we want to change perception, we need to start with our younger audience.

However, it’s not just harming children and it’s not just harming women; it’s also harming brands’ reputations as well. The objectification of women is just a bit ‘old hat’. It’s not clever. It’s lazy, non-inclusive and damaging.

And it’s not just in advertising of course. The majority of books (starting from an early age) and films, cast men in the leading role with women on the periphery, acting as girlfriends, mothers or objects of desire.

Madonna Badger cited a startling stat in her presentation – “91% of women say advertisers don’t understand them, scary because they control $20 Trillion of the US economy” – a figure that has been in the making since Greenfield Online for Arnold’s women’s insight team surveyed 1,000 men and women in 2002. Considering the stat is an extremely troubling one, and fourteen years have lapsed since this investigation, it’s a shame our industry haven’t done more to find out how gender and objectification have progressed. I’d like to see another study conducted to see if this this changed at all, since the explosion of the internet and social media. I imagine it has changed somewhat – although perhaps sadly, not as much as we would like to hope in a decade and a half.

An unfortunate but perhaps telling action that shows some of the root cause of this disconnect is something that Cindy Gallop highlighted. She pointed out that creative CEO James Hurman’s book ‘The Case for Creativity’, which was distributed ‘to Cannes delegates, collected a number of creative perspectives from those at the top of the industry – none of which were women. Herman admitted that it may have been “unconscious bias” that was the reason he ‘forgot’ to invite women to give their views.

Lastly, Cindy Gallop highlighted another – albeit far more blatantly sexist – email that was sent out by a ‘third party’ on behalf of digital company Vayner Media and Thrillist, for a Cannes party they were hosting. The invite makes the reader aware that the party was for ‘attractive women and models only’ – requesting that all women who request an invite attach a photo of themselves, presumably to be vetted, while men should contact the PR departments for a guaranteed pass.

While the CEOs of the host companies have now backtracked and denied any part in this blunder, this year’s Cannes has highlighted that sexism is still rife within advertising – both messaging and right at the top of the system, and whether subconsciously or not, women are still getting overlooked and treated as objects.

Despite the scandals, there have been some positive movements taking shape at the festival. Unilever, home to more than 400 brands – many of which are targeted at women – has announced its commitment to stop stereotyping women in its advertising.

I’m also proud however that although there is still a long way to go before we have gender equality, that there are women like Cindy Gallop and Madonna Badger in our industry, stepping forward and sending a positive message out there that we want change I, like all other women, simply want to be a valued contributor within our industry, respected as a person and not constantly defined by my gender.