I was there for Rob Lowe’s Brat Pack years, including “Class” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and his Sam Seaborn was one of my favorite “West Wing” characters. You’ll understand, then, why the DirecTV commercials starring Lowe and all his alter-egos resonated with me. I imagine my demographic was in their sights when they set out to create those commercials and wittingly end each one with the theme from “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Watching the once-teen heart throb play roles such as ‘creepy,’ ‘far less attractive,’ and ‘peaked in high school,’ was hilarious. I didn’t switch to DirecTV and doubt I ever will, but I gave them props for original content and creativity. The Better Business Bureaus’ National Advertising Division wasn’t as thrilled, citing complaints about truthfulness and accuracy (not related to the fact that he didn’t really peak in high school). I won’t dispute those claims or DirecTV’s pulling of the Lowe ads in response. I think that was actually the best move for them given the circumstances. What I can’t support, however, is the replacement of those creative ads with “Hannah and Her Horse,” a trite, standby advertising approach of throwing a bikini-clad blond female on screen to sell something other than bikinis. Thanks, DirecTV, for taking a huge step back both in creativity and the portrayal of women in advertising. For that matter, you took a huge step back in portraying animals on television since even her horse comes off as a self-centered dip.
I won’t say that today’s TV commercials are still exclusively sexist or that no smart, educated or respect-worthy women are ever portrayed. I know they are out there, but not enough so that I can quickly think of the wonderful examples of empowered women in ads. I also won’t include Dove, since they use the empowerment angle to sell, rather than selling using portrayals of already powerful women. Somehow it seems patronizing to be told you’re not a supermodel so should buy this brand of soap to spite them.
More often than not, brands choose to rely on comedic powerhouses such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey (all of whom I love and respect, don’t get me wrong) or take a tongue-in-cheek approach to their female spokesperson. Take ‘Jan,’ Toyota’s spokes-secretary or ‘Flo,’ the now iconic Progressive sales agent in sanitary white attire. Sure, each is the lead in the commercial and seems to be presenting the critical information (even about such ‘man’ subjects as trucks and motorcycles) but does any little girl say she wants to be Jan or Flo when she grows up? Sadly, I think many are more likely to feel bad about themselves for not looking like Hannah, riding down the beach where there’s clearly no technology for miles talking about DirecTV.
As a woman with a master’s degree and a business in which I provide experience, insight, advice and well-crafted communication to clients, I don’t feel like I see my peers in commercials when I look at the women who are shocked at how pretty a car’s interior is. I recognize my peer group in the men who can intelligently talk about investments and retirement, insurance, health care and even how to grow a decent lawn. As a woman who grew up in the conceited ‘80s when male stars like Rob Lowe starred across from half-naked, bikini clad anorexics, I also recognize the character of Hannah and find myself hating her, the horse she rode in on, and DirecTV for setting it all back decades rather than once again raising the creative bar to come up with something really engaging.