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
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
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
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.