Allstate is trying to step away from its more traditional advertising to be more "evocative" with its "Mayhem" ad campaign, but the insurance company produced a couple of commercials that are strangely contemptuous of young women.
In July, Allstate launched its "Mayhem" series of advertisements. Dean Winters, known for his role as Ryan O'Reilly on the HBO prison drama Oz, plays Mayhem, a sort of personification of all that can go wrong for a car owner — a "random windstorm" that causes a branch to fall onto your car, a "filthy rich executive" who sues you after he slams on his brakes and you rear-end him, and so on.
Pink SUV" and "Jogger"), Allstate and its ad agency, the Chicago-based Leo Burnett, decided to take strangely mean-spirited, contemptuous swipes at young women. To put it plainly, the ads are misogynistic — or, at least, strikingly disrespectful of young women.
That a company treats women with disdain in its advertising isn't particularly noteworthy; tons of commercials for beer and body sprays belong to the "women are stupid sluts with big breasts" school of copywriting. (And yes, it's totally a safety school.) However, that a company as benign as Allstate, selling a product as insipid as car insurance, feels comfortable taking cheap shots at young women in a national ad campaign suggests a normalization of sexism that is noteworthy. And it's worth exploring — even for those who are, at this very moment, rolling their eyes and muttering about oversensitivity and the PC police.
Pink SUVs and stereotypes
Here's the first TV spot, "Pink SUV," in which Mayhem is a "typical teenage girl" driving the titular pink SUV. See if you can spot all the teenage girl stereotypes!
Here are the ones I found:
— Girls are materialistic (pink SUV, pink sunglasses, shiny cell phone).
— Girls are chatterboxes who gossip all the time.
— Girls can't concentrate on driving and will text while behind the wheel.
— Girls' conversations are stupid and vapid.
— Girls bastardize the English language with their dumb slang ("BFF," "OMG").
— Girls have no loyalty to each other (Becky kissed Mayhem's crush).
— Girls are easily "emotionally compromised."
— Girls hate other girls ("OMG, Becky's not even hot"), and their friendships with each other are shallow and transient.
— Girls can't drive and will hit parked cars.
— Girls have no sense of responsibility or ethics and have no qualms about hitting and running.
Allstate is particularly proud of this spot. On the official Facebook fan page for Mayhem, Allstate notes that Mayhem is, emphasis mine, "everything from a moody teenage girl to a wild deer out chewing on leaves."
I'm not interested in debating whether or not these stereotypes are true, mostly because it's pointless to try to prove or disprove stereotypes. Stereotypes are stereotypes usually because they happened to ring true to some people, and I don't deny that there are some girls who do hate other girls or drive poorly.
But nobody who's not a jackass would seriously assert that every single girl in the world is materialistic, gossipy, or awful at driving (unless you've met every single girl in the world, you wouldn't know), so usually anecdotal evidence is trotted out to "prove" that these stereotypes are true for "most" girls — in other words, evidence in the form of, "Every girl I know is x, so while I'm not saying all girls are x, you have to admit, it's the norm." But if you take that seriously (and let's be honest — even if we don't admit it, we all tend to weigh our own anecdotal evidence heavily in our minds), there are two problems.
First, there's sampling bias — bias that occurs when the people on which you're basing your conclusions about a group aren't representative of that group. If you're the sort of person who's inclined to believe that all girls are materialistic, you're more likely — consciously or unconsciously — to be drawn to girls who are materialistic. People are drawn to those who prove their assumptions correct, after all; dealing with challenges to one's assumptions can be taxing.
And second, there's confirmation bias — selectively looking at evidence that proves our beliefs, while ignoring evidence that doesn't. In other words, if you're inclined to believe that girls are bad drivers, you'll remember every time a girl nearly hits you, but you'll ignore all the times a guy nearly hit you — or, at the very least, not hold it against guys in general. Although I'm hesitant to cite the webcomic xkcd on the issue of sexism (which has its own issues), this strip, titled "How It Works," is particularly illustrative:
Again, I'm not saying that there isn't a single girl who's a bad driver or materialistic or easily emotionally compromised; indeed, I've known girls who are all those things. But I've known guys who are all those things, too, and so have most people.
I asked Raleigh Floyd, a spokesman for Allstate, about the stereotypes used in the Pink SUV ad. He said that he couldn't comment specifically on the stereotypes being used because he wasn't on the creative team, but he defended using stereotypes in general.
"I know that, for the majority for the campaign as a whole, the goal was to portray scenarios that the viewing public would recognize," Floyd said. "And to some extent, that would rely on some stereotypes, perhaps, or else how else do they recognize them?"
How else? Probably with copywriting that isn't lazy and doesn't needlessly marginalize an entire group of people with well-worn clichés that help justify disrespect and contempt towards them. But sure, if you're going for a cheap laugh and you can't be bothered to do your job well, by all means, do the whole "pick on girls" thing.
(I called and emailed Leo Burnett several times to try to arrange an interview with someone at the agency about the campaign. The calls went unreturned, and after being sent some friendly yet ultimately unhelpful emails, I stopped getting responses.)
The truth is, young women — and particularly teenage girls — are more or less "acceptable targets" in our culture and particularly in advertising. That is to say, you can pick on teenage girls and mock them in a way that doesn't register the same instant, universal disapproval as most other groups.
For example, could Allstate run an ad with Mayhem saying he's a "typical black driver" who gets distracted by someone selling fried chicken and watermelons? Or an ad in which Mayhem is a "typical Asian driver" who is congenitally incapable of operating a car? Absolutely not — the ads would be correctly labeled as racist, and Allstate would fear blowback from consumers.
And yet, Allstate doesn't fear blowback when it takes a shot at young women. Why? Ostensibly because it's culturally okay to mock them. (You might be tempted to argue that Allstate wouldn't fear blowback from mocking men, but that's an apples-to-oranges argument. Men haven't faced the same historical discrimination as women, and men have more institutional power and influence in our culture than women.)
I know this is sounding dangerously close to White Knighting, but it's not. (At least, I don't think it is, though you're more than welcome to call me out if you disagree.) I don't think girls or women are fragile little flowers that need perpetual care and rescuing, and they're fully capable of taking care of themselves.
But consider this: What does being a "typical teenage boy" mean? Only one negative stereotype — horniness — comes to mind, right? And it's not even that negative; there's a sort of an "atta boy!" playfulness implied. But a whole range of criticisms — shallow, stupid, petty, emotional — spring up when you think of a "typical teenage girl."
When girls are told, over and over again (in real life, in the media), that being a "typical teenage girl" means being shallow, stupid, petty, and emotional, what does that do to a girl's self-respect? How does that affect how society treats girls? How does that affect how girls treat themselves? There's something messed up about telling girls that they're supposed to be bitchy, and then complaining when you run into bitchy girls.
In the Mayhem ad campaign, Mayhem personifies either non-humans (a poorly-secured satellite dish, a wild deer) or narrowly-defined, absurdist caricatures (a rich CEO, a navigationally-challenged fourth-string quarterback). But "young women" aren't non-humans, nor are they narrowly-defined as a group. Allstate is then saying, without any qualification, that women, by virtue of their inherent womanness, are mayhem when they're near a car.
Raleigh Floyd said Allstate has received feedback about sexism in the ads but wouldn't comment as to whether or not Allstate is planning to pull the ads. When I asked Floyd if he thought the concerns over sexism in the ads were reasonable, he said, "I don't think it's the company's place to decide whether someone else's opinion is reasonable or not" — which, by the way, isn't a we disagree, but they're reasonable, or at least a yes, we understand the concerns.
"I think the bigger point here is, while we are certainly trying to evoke, we aren't trying to offend," Floyd said. But regardless of whether or not Allstate was trying to offend, did they seriously not see how people might view this as pretty messed up?
(By the way, I've heard kind of a half-assed defense of the ad in the form of, "They're not making fun of all teenage girls, but just the shallow ones." First of all, no — the ad clearly says "teenage girl" with no caveats. Second, I doubt "They're not making fun of all Asians, just the ones that can't drive" would be a legitimate excuse. But maybe most importantly, girls should be allowed to like so-called girly things — the color pink, boys, BFFs — without being dismissed out of hand, and without having to feel the onus of "defending your sex" on their shoulders.)
No body's perfect
Here's the other TV spot, "Jogger," in which Mayhem is "a hot babe out jogging."
Mayhem, decked out in pink once again, says she's jogging to "make sure this" — pointing to her body — "stays a ten." A guy drives by and is so distracted by the jogger that he crashes into a lamppost.
First, nice touch implying the only reason young women go out jogging is to make sure she can maintain a hot body. Could she be jogging for her health? Or maybe she wants to stay in shape because she's into sports? Nah — it must be because she's vain.
But more importantly, why is the jogger "mayhem" in this case? Isn't the real "mayhem" the guy who's so easily distracted and so creepy that he leers at a woman long enough to crash into a lamppost? It would seem that that ad isn't just more logical; the copy practically writes itself ("I'm a desperate teenage boy who gets off on spandex," Dean Winters could snarl). But no, for whatever reason, Allstate and Leo Burnett went out of its way to, once again, make a young woman at fault for causing an accident.
Or more precisely, in this ad, it's the young woman's body that's at fault. It's actually an interesting switch-up; usually in advertising, young women are told that they should feel bad for not having an attractive body. In this ad, young women should feel bad for having a body that's too attractive — look too hot and you cause accidents, and some poor innocent guy's cut-rate insurance won't cover it. In conclusion, all young women should be ashamed of their bodies. Or something.
What's even more disconcerting about the ad is that it stealthily (and, giving Allstate and Leo Burnett the benefit of the doubt, unintentionally) perpetuates the idea that women should be instinctively blamed for bad things happening because of how they're dressed. After all, implied in the ad is the idea of, "It's not my fault, look at what she's wearing!" — an excuse that's been used to justify all manner of sexual harassment and assault.
Why this matters
I'm not saying Allstate is singlehandedly making the world a harder place for young women, or that the company is some sort of champion of misogyny. Indeed, sexism is a complicated problem with countless factors at play. But these ads for Allstate aren't helping.
And the fact that they're coming from Allstate isn't helping, either. As mentioned earlier, you sort of expect this from ads for beer or body sprays, and it's received accordingly — oh, it's coming from Axe or Miller Light, of course they're being asses. It's not that it's okay when it comes from Axe or Miller Light; it's just that it's understood that their advertising shouldn't be interpreted as an indication of what's acceptable.
Allstate, on the other hand, is an insurance company. Car insurance is boring, Allstate isn't edgy, and this is more or less a general audience campaign. Accordingly, when Allstate says that young women are dumb and vain in an ad campaign, it carries a lot more weight in terms of indicating what reflects mainstream thought. It's the difference between Maxim magazine running a cover that says "Slutty girls are great!," and People magazine running it.
Raleigh Floyd said that the Mayhem campaign was intended to try to reach specifically young adults, aged 25 to 34. Considering that everybody needs car insurance, it's a strange strategy to run ads that mock such a broad group (young women), especially when that group is a part of your target demographic.
And the weird thing is, it's not as if Allstate is a company that's known for sexism. The company's charitable arm, the Allstate Foundation, even has a domestic violence program among its core concerns. How can a company that demonstrably cares about domestic violence — a problem that stems in part from a heinously warped view of women — run ads that help warp views towards women? (I'm not saying that seeing an ad that makes fun of a teenage girl will indisputably lead to domestic violence; that's ridiculous. Again, though — it doesn't really help either.)
This criticism isn't unique; indeed, several feminist blogs have criticized Allstate for the ads, and rightfully so. The ads are lazy, cheap shots that join countless more lazy, cheap shots. It's not healthy for girls and women to be constant targets for this stuff, and it's not healthy for us as a society to be okay with it. Allstate and Leo Burnett should be embarrassed.
About your writer
Feministy critiques of advertising seem to invite questions about the author's intentions, so I'll be upfront with you all, and you can decide for yourself. You can skip this if you don't care.
I'm a straight guy (and pro-LGBT rights). I consider myself a feminist (though I don't make a habit of loudly announcing it because doing so is reminiscent of the guys who minor in Women's Studies in a ill-conceived attempt to get laid). I think of myself as a feminist of the "feminism is the radical notion that women are people" mold; accordingly, I don't think that women are more special, enlightened, or otherwise better than men (although that's kind of a straw man, because I don't know any feminist, male or female, who does). A pessimist might frame this as "women are just as bad as men"-style feminism.
I think girls' and women's body images, intelligence, and worth are specifically and pervasively questioned and attacked in the media (and particularly advertising), and I think that has to have some sort of cumulative effect. Thus, it's worth calling out whenever it happens. On the other hand, one of my favorite movies is (500) Days of Summer, which I've heard totally blows my feminist cred. I also love Juno, but I don't know what that does with said cred. (Though my friends have said I love Juno because I think "Ellen Page is hot," which, well yeah, but it's a good movie and she's talented, damn it.)
Also, hypocrisy alert: I arguably used a teenage girl stereotype in this op-ed I wrote for my college paper last June with the line about BFF charm bracelets. Oops.
So there you go-feel free to write in with accusations of White Knighting or oversensitivity or faux feminism, or if you think I have bad taste in movies. Other comments are welcome, too.
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