CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/GIRL POWER - Is it time to stop humiliating men in advertising? The theme of girl power in ads is becoming a cliche, Francesca Newland writes

When Posh, Scary, Baby, Sporty and Ginger got together and launched

their first number-one single, they hit an undercurrent in British

culture that had not yet been properly identified: girl power. That was

in 1996.

The phenomenon has since influenced headlines, books, TV programmes,

film plots, fashion and advertising.

The trouble is, like most five-year-old trends, it's getting tired.

This, however, has yet to sink in with a lot of advertising agencies.

Last week, McCann-Erickson aired a new Nescafe Gold Blend ad - instead

of love birds we have a woman lassoing her man to the ground. The ad

joins a long list of products using the girl power theme - and an

associated humiliation of men - to talk to women.

Numerous drinks brands have taken on the strategy: Archers, Reef and

Lambrini, for example. Then there are the fashion companies such as

Kookai and Gossard. Add to that advertising for cleaning products

including Flash and, of course, Mr Muscle.

Evidence that the humiliation of men may be going too far emerged at the

Edinburgh Book Festival last week, where the veteran feminist Doris

Lessing attacked women who keep rubbishing men. The Sun and The Mirror

both picked up on the story, running headlines such as "LAY OFF


It's easy to see why so many clients and agencies have taken up the

idea, however. You can imagine the peer pressure that leads a research

group of young women to laugh at the gag that sees the man suffering

various forms of torture.

Neil Dawson, the executive planning director of TBWA/London, explains:

"Ads that turn the tables on men and show them in an inferior light try

too hard to engage women. It's a classic error - trying to mirror what

they think the target likes. They'll say they like it in a research

group, where there's a peer effect."

But there's another reason why the approach is popular: it can work.

Take Mother's campaign for Vodka Source. Two Swedish women are seen

swigging Source as they force the men around them to catch crayfish with

their genitals as bait. Kookai's posters target fashion-conscious girls

with an image of a subservient man lawn-mowing a woman's bikini


These two examples of girl power advertising have one thing in


They are ironic. The humour carries the idea into the realms of the

respectable. As Tim Broadbent, the executive planning director of Bates

UK, says: "It all depends on how well it is done."

Clare Rossi, Grey Worldwide's executive planning director, stands by the

use of girl power, particularly with advertising for alcoholic brands,

but thinks that it is often done badly. She says: "It is a good strategy

but it is being executed in a clumsy fashion."

She cites Roose & Partners' latest execution for Reef as a prime

example. The ad, called "catch", features a band of women hauling in men

in a giant net but kicking the one wearing glasses back into the


But the best-executed, funniest ad in the world won't be original if it

uses the girl power theme. Laurence Green, a managing partner of Fallon,

says: "Ideally you've got to be first, or at least early on. Mr Muscle

does it by portraying blokes as wimps. If Mr Muscle has done it ahead of

you, you should be worried." Broadbent adds: "It has become an awful

advertising cliche."

The agencies behind girl power-themed ads each have a credible defence

for the strategy, of course. Pascale Reed, a managing partner, strategic

planning of McCann-Erickson, says the Gold Blend ad is about the

independence of women and is not meant to portray them at the expense of

men. She says the romance theme needed to be updated to talk to younger


Sharon Browne, Roose's account director on Reef, and David Bell, the

chief executive of Cheetham Bell JWT, Lambrini's agency, both argue that

it is a good way to talk to a large slice of Britain's younger female


Bell explains that it is a low-income, young portion of the female

population working in the accounts department, "not the brain of

Britain", and that looks forward to going out at the weekend that his

ads target. "We are saying that it's a drink to warm up with before an

evening out. Lambrini girls want to have fun, it's as simple as


But is there a danger that the strategy is insultingly simple and a bit

patronising? Bell argues: "A Lambrini girl probably doesn't know what

the word patronising means. They live in a simple world and we don't

want to get too subtle." So that's a yes, then.

Most of these brands are for women, so alienating the male buying public

is a risk they can afford. However, the strategy also alienates all

women who don't want to be pigeon-holed as Bell's definition of a

Lambrini girl.

Dawson says: "If you explicitly say this is a girls' drink, you may

undermine its credibility because some women want drinks that aren't

biased towards women." He cites Stella Artois and Budweiser advertising

for appealing to both men and women.

There is a simple way to stop ads veering towards the patronising:

agencies should hire more women.