Why Marketers Are Wooing Women All Wrong

Comedienne and Current TV host Sarah Haskins wants to know why sponges in TV commercials have sexy male accents, mops end up in desperate love triangles, and all women wear pearls? She'll talk about her latest episode of Target Women, which lampoons marketing strategies aimed at the female demographic.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

And we want to get an update on the unusual story we've been following today out of Colorado. The 6-year-old boy who climbed into a hot air balloon and floated away alone thousands of feet in the air.

NPR's Jeff Brady has been reporting on the story from Denver, and joins us now. Jeff, welcome.

JEFF BRADY: Yes, thank you.

ROBERTS: So, authorities have just brought the balloon to the ground. What do we know?

BRADY: Yeah. I can't tell - I couldn't tell from looking at the pictures on the television station here, if the balloon came down by itself or if they pulled it down. Right now, they're sort of ripping the fabric and the balloon trying to find this boy who's supposed to be inside. He's been identified as a 6-year-old. His first name is Falcon. His parents are Mayumi and Richard Heene at Fort Collins, Colorado.

And apparently, this morning, they had this experimental helium balloon in their backyard. And their two sons were out playing. The younger one climbed inside, the older one says, and just floated away.

ROBERTS: And it's a homemade balloon? And so it shaped like a flying saucer, it looks like?

BRADY: It is. It's sort of metallic. And it's not like a balloon that you and I imagine, where - with a basket on the bottom. So we've not actually seen the boy in the air; we've just been watching this saucer-shaped thing flying through the air for the last two and half hours. And now it's on the ground and we still don't have any sign of the boy. So we're not sure exactly what's going on here.

ROBERTS: NPR's Jeff Brady on the line from Denver. Thank you so much.

BRADY: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We will continue to bring you any developments as the story unfolds. Stay with NPR News and All THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: It's Thursday, and on the cable channel CurrentTV, that means "Target Women" with Sarah Haskins. It's a comedy short about women and marketing which airs on the program infoMania. We actually have a special sneak preview of today's episode.

(Soundbite of "Target Women")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: Sexy, clean, cool, fun, healthy, beautiful, large, UNDERPANTS. Target Women

Ms. SARAH HASKINS: There comes a time when you've tried everything to be beautiful. You've tried fancy lotions, you've dabbled in peels; nothing works. Well, maybe it's time to try a contraption.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman #2: In just two minutes a day, these women, all over 36 dramatically transform their necklines and took years off their appearance. How'd they get these age-defying results? With the Neckline Slimmer.

Ms. SARAH HASKINS: Someone in the world. Person gets up in the morning and goes to work. It's the Neckline Slimmer Factory. Where do these amazing machines come from? I don't know, probably from a place for a sophisticated and shrouded in mystery.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman #3: It's a micro current and it's a technology that's been around for in Europe for a long time.

Unidentified Woman #4: Introducing the ultrasonic home facial massager once available only at exclusive spas in Europe.

Ms. SARAH HASKINS: Here, of course, everyone's beautiful in Europe, because of those castles they live in.

ROBERTS: Women are, of course, a sought-after demographic in the marketing world. But Sarah Haskins thinks the marketers woo us in all the wrong ways.

In a few moments, we'll hear from Sarah Haskins. But we also want to hear from you, whether it's that weird love sick kitchen mop or the unintentionally hilarious shampoo ads.

So call us and share your favorite message targeting women. 800-989-8255 is the number. Or email us talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sarah Haskins is in our studios at NPR West in Culver City. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SARAH HASKINS: Thank you very much it's nice to be here.

ROBERTS: So we just heard this clip about beauty contraptions. Tell us how that happening?

Mr. HASKINS: Well, every week as people - or every other week as people who watch "infoMania" and "Target Women" know, we sort of take a theme or type of products or an angle that advertisers and marketers use to woo women. And this week, we're just sort of having fun with some of the more ridiculous beautiful contraptions, which are - when you put a machine-like element into a device intended to make you look gorgeous.

ROBERTS: Well, although it's funny, just hearing the audio, you can't quite tell what's parody and what is actually real.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. Yeah.

ROBERTS: All these women over 36 toning up their facial muscles was the actual infomercial for a weird little device you put onto your chin?

Ms. HASKINS: Yes, absolutely. You know, and we tried to insert like, yipe(ph), over 36 - but we couldn't quite get it there in the editing. But yes, so that was the actual commercial, as is the Europe references, except for mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: What got you started in this area?

Ms. HASKINS: It was, as so many nice things are, a complete accident. I was writing for infoMania and we were expanding from being about a five-minute segment show on Current TV to being a half-hour show that ran every Thursday, which meant we could add some more correspondents and people. I wanted to do something. I started watching a lot of TV and saw a lot of yogurt ads. So I was like, these are pretty annoying. And we put together Target Women around that idea and that it just sort of took off. So it was very lucky and a lot of fun.

ROBERTS: Have you ever seen a yogurt ad for men?

Ms. HASKINS: No. Maybe in another country, like where field hockey is played in Pakistan or something. You know, it's not here.

ROBERTS: Yeah. What is that? I mean, why do marketers decide a certain topic, a certain product, is only for one gender or the other?

Ms. HASKINS: You know, I wish I knew. But when people do ask me the question, you know, what - a lot of people ask me like, how can marketing to women be better? And my default answer is, I don't want it to better, this is my job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Right. You'd lose so much material.

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. Like, please, keep it bad. But beyond that, I think the big problem, though, stemmed from the fact that everything is - the products are very clearly divided into genders, either because of something with our gender roles, like laundry, or maybe, you know, they find the angle being weight loss, and that's a lady thing, so that goes to yogurt. I mean, that's what the yogurt ads are about, weight loss and, like, regularity.

ROBERTS: Which you think would be gender neutral?

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. I - maybe that's like the one thing guys don't want to talk about on the air. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: I don't know. Given all of the, you know, Cialis ads, I think there's very little they don't want to talk about on the air.

Ms. HASKINS: You're right. We did start one Target Women with the Viva Viagra clip.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is there any - is there anything that targets women well, do you think, that actually works?

Ms. HASKINS: I think that is an interesting question. I haven't seen a lot of it. I mean, I tend to think the best advertisements are advertisements that in some ways are for things that are gender neutral like a Geico product, which is, you know, for everybody. I like that commercial with the little eyeballs or like (unintelligible) are singing to you.

But I don't think anything when it's going after women particularly in trying to frame them in a certain way to make you buy the product is really going to not be ridiculous in some way. And it's my job to find out what's ridiculous.

The Swiffer commercials with the mops that love you are very, very funny, but it's also - when I watch those in consort with 10 other cleaning commercials, you see that the underlying theme, the subtext of this, is that we're in love with cleaning. Like the subtext of laundry commercials is that we're practically addicted to it.

ROBERTS: I actually want to play a clip from that love affair with the Swiffer thing, just for anyone who might have missed the media onslaught.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: But hey, look at the bright side. If your husband doesn't know how to use a blender, you can comfort yourself by knowing that cleaning products will always be your special friend, like Javier Purple Sponge Bardem.

Unidentified Man #1: You know what part of a woman I admire most? Her hands. This sponge has been around the sink a few times, so I know what dishwashing can do to a woman's hands.

Unidentified Woman #1: You think he's sensitive? The lady about a Swiffer is in the middle of a love triangle.

Unidentified Woman #2: Once you switch to Swiffer WetJet...

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Unidentified Woman #2: ...you'll never go back to your old mop again.

Unidentified Man #2: I got a delivery from a Mr. Mop.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby Come Back")

Mr. DAVID BECKETT (Singer): (Singing) Baby come back...

ROBERTS: That is the work of Sarah Haskins. She does the Target Women segment on infoMania on Current TV. And we are talking about targeting women on the air by advertising. You can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us email: talk@npr.org.

Let's hear from Sarah(ph) in Gastonia, North Carolina. Sarah, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SARAH (Caller): Thank you. The commercial that just took me over the top is the one for the lady's razor. And as the woman walked at the topiary bushes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: ...the shape of the bush changes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: And it is so insulting to my intelligence. I can't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: How is it that a razor makes bushes change shape?

SARAH: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: ...it's very subtle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Wow. Yeah. That is - do they think we're idiots? That every time I see an ad like that, that's all I can think.

Ms. HASKINS: I think advertisers and marketers are having a field day, no pun intended, with euphemisms. They just love the euphemistic approach to - we did a Target Women with using that commercial, among others, called Your Garden, and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: ...and I think it's - I don't know if they think we're ashamed of it or that it's too shameful for television, but I think the insult to our intelligence comes from the motive of being, like, clever and tricky, like, it's something like, oh, we could never talk about how I handle that problem.

ROBERTS: But I feel like these companies who are, you know, they've got a huge marketing budget, they must focus group these ads within and into their lives. And yet there they are on the air. No one stood up in this focus group and saying that is the most insulting 30 seconds of television I've ever seen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Apparently not. Let's hear...

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Burt in Oakland. Burt, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BERT (Caller): Well - the Phoenix, the commercial that came to mind for me was, mother, I'd rather do it myself.

ROBERTS: Oh, what's that an ad for?

BERT: Oh, that was - must have been out in the �60s. A mother - a daughter and a mother where doing something and the daughter wanted to do it and the mother was trying to do it just in - at that time, it was - went on for a long time and it was really popular, and people made a lot of jokes about it, so...

ROBERTS: Thanks for your call.

Ms. HASKINS: I wonder what it was for.

ROBERTS: I know, well, then it's not a successful ad, right? If you don't remember the product.

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. Maybe it was lighting a cigarette. Mother, I'll do it myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Back when they can advertise that on TV.

ROBERTS: We have email from Sally. It says, one of the most annoying ads I've ever seen was one for Oil of Olay in which they extolled the great benefits of using their products creating soft supple skin. The final sense of the ad was, Won't that be nice for him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Every time I saw that commercial, I would scream at the TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, one of the - I was actually - I'm going to sound like a fake professor here for a second. But I was an American studies major in college and we learned about the cult of true womanhood, which was sort of this what women were told in the media in like the turn of the century in the Victorian era at that time, which emphasized this piety and purity and submission and domesticity, and how the women sort of control the hearth. And from that, you know, they control the home. And I think we sort of have the legacy of that has not changed. It's still with us in the media and we've just added to it. So it's certainly a lot of women's products are still like, do it for your man.

And now I think what's been added to it in a modern mix is this all sense of like, fem-powerment - like you go, girl. You are jogging, you know? And that shouldn't be our prime goal, is jogging and going to yoga class without having cramps.

ROBERTS: Well, there's a email from Lynn that gets this. She says I always find it amusing how marketers think that all women think that all men are absolutely helpless morons. They always do things like show the hapless man trying to do laundry or clean up a spill and making a bigger mess. In comes the woman, shaking her head in a pitying way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: And she says, oh honey, me and - insert laundry cleaning product - can handle that. Go do something manly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. It's the alternate mythology of a world where women had to do all the household chores because guys just couldn't. They're completely inept.

ROBERTS: Yeah. I suspect a conspiracy on that one too. But that's a topic for another day.

Here's Gretchen in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Gretchen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GRETCHEN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

ROBERTS: Good.

GRETCHEN: I think deodorant ads are pretty hilarious. Like if I go into a deodorant aisle in a major supermarket, it's very clear which deodorants are intended for men and which are intended for women. So the men's deodorant will have bold colors and lighting strikes, and all of these really strong symbols. And then the women's deodorant will be in pastels and (unintelligible) flowers or baby powder scent. So...

ROBERTS: So men are supposed to smell like lightning and women are supposed to smell like flowers?

GRETCHEN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Men are supposed to smell like Zeus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRETCHEN: Right.

ROBERTS: I'm going to go out on a limb and say this was probably a pretty stinky (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRETCHEN: Exactly.

Ms. HASKINS: Well, he did sleep with a lot of animals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRETCHEN: Right. Well, the flower - the fields of flowers don't really do it for me. So sometimes I have to cross over, you know?

Ms. HASKINS: Secret, a few years ago, started like a line of deodorants with delicate sort of scent themes like Ambition or - and things like.

GRETCHEN: Oh, kind of like those posters.

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. I tried them all to see if I felt ambitious on a particular day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRETCHEN: Yeah. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Thank you. We have email from Linda in Nashville who says, I really dislike the Yoplait yogurt commercials in which the female actors practically devour the spoon there using to eat the yogurt, complete with looks of sheer ecstasy at the taste. Would it be a stretch to say that they are sexually suggestive and demeaning?

Would it be a stretch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: I don't think so. I just - that was - those ads were used in the first Target Women we did - Target Women: Yogurt. And what I just loved about it was just like, who would ever eat yogurt where they're eating? And no one talks like that. Like I've never been like talking to my best friends and said, you know what, let's crack open a yogurt and get to the bottom of this, because I'm really dissatisfied.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HASKINS: Let's go for the strawberry whip.

ROBERTS: Do you ever have a lack of material? Do you have to go digging?

Ms. HASKINS: Certainly not. I mean, we have done so many of the ads people are bringing up. Of course, we used it in this, we used it in that. You know, we try to broaden our approach in some ways by looking at TV shows that are aimed at women - whether or not women like them is a totally different matter - and sort of media trends involving women. So that's how we sometimes knew. So like Michelle - we did a piece on Michelle Obama's arms. So that's how we try to broaden our approach.

ROBERTS: I, for another story, talked to a marketing expert who said there's this sort of basic feeling that if you make something smaller and put it in pink packaging, more women will buy it.

Ms. HASKINS: Yes. Like Dell tried to do that with their computers earlier this year.

ROBERTS: Right. And you know, hand tools, hammers and pliers and stuff now come in pink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Really?

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah. Well, I just can't stop myself from buying something in pink, so...

ROBERTS: (Unintelligible) packaging even better. Right.

Ms. HASKINS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Sarah Haskins, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. HASKINS: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Comedienne Sarah Haskins joined us from our studios in Culver City. You can catch her on Current TV or at current.com.

Finally today, we need your help with a new effort by NPR to find 50 great voices from around the world. We're not necessarily looking for the most popular singing voices ever, but voices that have touched you in some way.

Tell us whose voice gives you the shivers just for its sheer beauty, or who has jaw-dropping technique or what voice has the power to wake you up in the morning and get you through a lousy day, or give you comfort or beauty or joy.

Email your nominations now to talk@npr.org, put 50 Great Voices in the subject line. And join us at this time on Monday when we'll talk about your nominations and we'll hear what some of them sound like. That address again is talk@npr.org, put 50 Great Voices in the subject line, and join us on Monday.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira Flatow. Today, we leave you with a little Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

I'm Rebecca Roberts, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Can't We Be Friends?")

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