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What’s sex-based advertising got to do with health? More on Kraft and Cream

The health sector tends to consider food advertising mainly in terms of its effect on waistlines and pester power.

But Margo Saunders, a public health policy consultant in Canberra, is here to remind us that advertising has many other insidious effects on our wellbeing. As a case in point, have a look at the ads for Kraft’s new Philadelphia Cream for Cooking.

She writes:

“The Advertising Standards Board recently notified numerous complainants that it had dismissed their complaint (0203/10) against Kraft Foods Ltd for inappropriate and offensive sexual objectification in its television commercial for Philadelphia Cream for Cooking.

The G-rated commercial features two men cooking as a woman describes the new product. As she exits the kitchen arm in arm with the male cooks in their underwear, she smacks one on the backside and tells viewers that they will have to find other ways to be naughty.

Among the formal complaints were comments to the effect that, ‘A woman spanking a man on the bottom is every bit as offensive as a man doing the same to a woman especially when there is sexual undertones involved. I really believed we had moved away from this form of sexist advertising,’ and ‘Complete objectification of men who women can treat any way they want. The ad sure would draw a lot of flak if the roles were reversed.’

In defending the ad, Kraft successfully claimed that its intention was to show that, ‘…there are times when it is fun to be naughty. Hence the message in the television commercial is about not having to give up naughtiness, and that, ‘The protagonist …is simply seeking other ways of being cheeky and naughty,’ with no intention to objectify men.

The relevant section of the Advertiser Code of Ethics (section 2.1) refers to discrimination or vilification.  In view of the ASB, the advertisement does not breach the Code because it does not discriminate against or vilify men or women.  Extraordinarily, the ASB’s main rationale for dismissing the complaints was that the ad was a parody of other ads that use attractive and scantily-clad women to present products; the fact that the men happily go along with the woman’s references to them being good looking was described as ‘flirty’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The ASB’s decision was delivered just as I had finished writing this analysis of  the ad:

“Women of Australia, feast your eyes on this…performs beautifully…You’ll have to think up new ways of being naughty.”

Kraft’s prime-time television ad for its new product, Cream for Cooking, features a wanna-be Sex and the City cast extra purring about how the product compares with the ‘naughtiness’ of going off with two attractive young men, one of whom gets a playful slap on the bottom as the three walk off-screen, arm in arm.  This is the same company whose 2009 marketing escapades over the short-lived iSnack 2.0 Vegemite drew near-universal derision from Australians and accusations that Kraft had lost the plot in terms of marketing.

Have they got it wrong again, this time in terms of the sexual revolution?

While few argue for a return to the bad old days of repression and puritanism, there are serious concerns about the pervasiveness of sexualisation and its essential inescapability and influence when it intrudes into aspects of culture such as advertising.  Advertising has used both overt and subtle sexual imagery since the 1800s, but the last 30 years have seen a notable increase in the use of sexual appeals.  The Advertising Standards Bureau reports that 40% of all advertising complaints during the past year have been about sex and nudity.

Sexualised images of women are used to sell everything including cars, motorbikes, food, fragrances, internet access and coal-fired energy. Many such ads are targeted at men, but ads for products aimed at women often incorporate similar themes and images.  Women’s (and men’s) magazines contain a wealth of beefcake advertising, with male bodies being used to sell products including clothing, perfume, alcohol, and chocolate bars.  The view has always been that sex can be used effectively only if it has some relevance to the product – but this is clearly changing. And advertisers can still get it wrong.

Australian women have been shown to respond negatively to advertisements which use overt sexual appeals and are more likely than men to comment on the motive of the advertisers.  In 2004, numerous complaints were made to the ASB about an alcohol advertisement which viewers felt contained a blatant depiction of a woman as a sex object.  Research gauging viewer response to the ad found that 42% of respondents overall and more than half of the female respondents disliked the ad’s sexist imagery, and 20% specifically felt the ad was ‘sexist,’ ‘demeaning’ or ‘degrading’.

The ASB dismissed the complaint, however, on the grounds that, ‘… in the context of prevailing community standards the majority of people would find this advertisement humorous rather than offensive’ (ASB, 2004 (18/04), Case Report of the Advertising Standards Board, 17 February 2004, cited here).

It has recently been announced that the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ code of ethics, which is used by the ASB to determine whether or not it upholds complaints, is to be reviewed for the first time in a decade, with the review open to the public from July. The research, undertaken by market researchers Colmar Brunton, will take ‘particular note’ of portrayals of women and children – nice move for a company which once conducted focus groups for Philip Morris aimed at finding out ‘what kind of communication and packaging concepts would most appeal to women’.

Back to Kraft’s Cream for Cooking ad, which succeeds in insulting both men and women.  Not only is it based on the sexual objectification of men, but it implies that this is exactly how the ‘women of Australia’ think, to the extent that it will persuade them to embrace new product. OK, the product isn’t ‘naughty’— we get it.

But personally, I’d be more impressed if the product were endorsed by a 60-year old cardiologist – and approach which would also fit more comfortably with Kraft’s hype about the product.

Despite the shenanigans in relation to the new Vegemite, Kraft is a big player and has no excuses for getting it wrong.  The company’s international division is purported to be the fifth-largest maker of packaged foods outside the United States. And Kraft should know how to use television – not only did the company create and sponsor, in 1947, the first commercial network program on television, the Kraft Television Theatre, but, 50 years later, they are now alleged to be spending more on marketing than on developing new products (Kraft holds off on new products, David Sterrett, March 02, 2009).

Local managers now decide how to market products in their own countries rather than follow directives from Kraft headquarters in Illinois.

The promotional material for Cream for Cooking also emphasizes health and convenience, with product launch announcements focusing on the products as ‘a healthier alternative to regular full fat cream’, ‘breaking the rules of cream as consumers know it’ and promising that the products ‘challenge their competitors in the taste, functionality and health stakes’.

The products are claimed to have ‘a rich, indulgent taste and texture but unlike other creams, won’t curdle or separate in hot dishes’ and  ‘offer chefs a healthier and more user-friendly alternative to standard cream’.  Yet the closest we get to this kind of information in the tv ad is a coy reference to ‘performs beautifully’, as the looking-for-sex female directs our attention to the two decorative males.

Kraft’s online information also focuses on the product’s health and convenience, albeit with a sensual, sexy tilt, as in: ‘Set your inner foodie goddess (or god) free’ by creating ‘meltingly rich dishes without fear…. throw the guilts away. Creamy, seductive indulgence is back with a vengeance’.

What we have here is a convenient, low-calorie version of cream. If it tastes any good, it should be easy to market on the basis of those virtues.

So why does Kraft believe that the way to market this product to ‘the women of Australia’ is to convince them that it has something to do with sex?  People do watch television advertising and it is intended to influence them.

Advertising such as this will influence me to boycott the product.

Shame, really — it’s probably healthy and convenient.  As the late advertising authority James Randolph Adams famously said: “If advertising had a little more respect for the public, the public would have a lot more respect for advertising.”