Business·Analysis

Street harassment commonly used in ads

Marketers have long used street harassment to market products, but how they're using it has evolved along with our perceptions of the practice, writes Bruce Chambers.
An Australian commercial for Snickers saw construction workers yelling empowering messages at women on the street. (Supplied by Snickers)

In late October, a video went viral on the internet and spurred an international conversation about street harassment. But street harassment doesn’t just happen on the street, it’s been a common theme in advertising for several decades.

To date, this video - filmed with a hidden camera by an organization that wants to stop street harassment - has been viewed almost 40 million times. It famously shows a young woman walking through Manhattan, and during the 10 hours of recording, she receives 100 catcalls from male passersby.

Obviously, in 2014 we see street harassment as disturbing, sexist and threatening.

But in the '60s, such behaviour was seen as so normal and flattering, it appeared in ads for women’s clothing, hair care and low-calorie foods. In this ad, we see young men ogling a young woman in a bikini as she walks along a pier. The suggestion that women should deliberately motivate and enjoy constant lecherous surveillance was commonplace at the time. And the most common perpetrators of street harassment in commercials were construction workers.

But by the mid-'90s, attitudes had changed sufficiently that commercials started using humour to subvert that stereotype.

Here, we see several female office workers at a window, watching a male construction worker take his break. He strips off his shirt revealing a muscular torso and chugs back a Diet Coke, although the diet message is clearly not aimed at him.

Similarly, the construction workers in this 2009 ad behave against stereotype. They remain silent as beautiful women pass by, but here’s what gets them going. A balding, middle-aged businessman walking past carrying an Arby’s bag.

Realizing that unexpected behaviour is a proven way to get attention, this 2014 Australian commercial shows male construction workers shouting very odd catcalls at passing women.

The shouts of feminist encouragement seem to genuinely astonish and please the female passersby. But just when we think we’ve entered an enlightened new age, we see the familiar words from a long-running ad campaign: “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” followed by the Snickers logo. Apparently, all it takes is a Snickers bar to turn feminist construction workers back into sexist pigs.

Remember, the role of marketers is to draw attention to products. As long as they accomplish that, they’re unconcerned whether the concept involves pleasantly surprising us with new-age enlightenment or jolting us with old-school objectification.


Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio.

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