It's a longtime advertising industry trope: "Sex sells." It's a truth that seems innocuous enough in some ways — if we want to create more humans, we need to have sex — and almost everyone does it, regardless of gender or sexual identity. So sex is pretty inclusive.
But the truth is, it's not just sex that sells; sexiness sells too, which is why so many products and services are associated with it.
But unlike the biological act, what's considered "sexy" is more subjective. Determinations of sexiness can vary — some see a man doing the dishes as "hot," while all kinds of physical attributes from red hair to thick thighs are an obsession to some and a turnoff for others. Sexiness is all about the person who's making the decision, and the people making those decisions in popular culture — advertising execs, movie producers and magazine editors — are not an inclusive group. At all.
White men are still the majority when it comes to who creates advertising in the United States. The New York Times reports, "According to a report issued in August 2011 by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 78,000 Americans working as advertising and promotion managers, 9.6 percent were Hispanic, 2.3 percent were Asian and fewer than 1 percent were African-American." And only 3 percent of ad company creative directors are women.
Really, the phrase should be: "What some white men think is sexy, sells. Or so they insist." So a very particular kind of sexiness, that which appeals to white men of a certain age, is "sexy" for everyone because those are the images and ideas used to sell products. You've seen the ads where a woman's stomach is used as a table, her breasts are used as a shelf, or her mouth is used as a receptacle — that's what they define as "sexy."
But one woman advertising executive is challenging the idea of using women's bodies in this way. She sees the way women are used in ads as offensive, and her campaign, #WomenNotObjects, makes the case in the video above — and it has lots of people talking. (The video has been viewed almost 1.5 million times.)
Madonna Badger, a principal at Badger & Winters, said she created the video to honor her three daughters. (Her daughters were killed along with Badgers' parents in a 2011 house fire.) Badger had worked in advertising for years, but now she says she's done. Her company's site states: "In 2016, Badger & Winters made a commitment to never objectify women in our work. #WomenNotObjects."
The video and hashtag have gotten lots of attention and retweets on Twitter from celebs like Ashton Kutcher, Alanis Morissette and George Takai. Organizations like UN Women, Global Fund for Women, the American Association of University Women and UniteWomen.org also supported the message. Most of the companies that were called out in the video gave no comment on it, though some complained the ads were from a few years ago.
If you don't think the video was convincing, you can try Badger's experiment yourself. Try Googling "objectification of women" and scrolling through the images. Then, do the same with "objectification of men." You'll see that in most of the ads of women, their heads are cut off or their faces are turned away from the camera, whereas when men are shown shirtless in similar types of "sexy" poses, their faces are almost always included and they are looking at the camera. They might be objectified in some ways, but they are still shown as a whole person. Notice too how women's bodies are often used as furniture or props, or positioned in degrading ways, whereas men are almost never shown in ways that disempower them, even if they're half-naked and shilling for cologne.
This project — which involves ads that put men in similar positions as the women described above, and in which they look ridiculous and strange — drives the point home. It's worth asking yourself the next time you see an ad that treats a body as an object, "Who is this ad supposed to be sexy for?"
"People are really seeing that objectifying women is up there with inequality," Badger told CNNMoney.