Female Ad Characters Are Now More Than Just Sex Objects -- Kind Of

Examples of the Evolving Campaign Women

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Marketers have always used women to sell products, but spokeswomen have lately veered away from the standard model of a well-endowed blonde in a mini.

A different type is emerging, one who has a unique character and does more than seductively drape herself over merchandise. This woman has a story; she may dream, ride motorcycles or provide advice in a fantasy world we glimpse for just seconds. She is crossing platforms over extended periods as a consistent, stable force in campaigns, and it's worthwhile to take a look at a couple of members of this new incarnation.

Example 1: T-Mobile Girl. The latest ad for the telecommunications provider features the already-recognizable spokeswoman exchanging her ladylike pink dress for black leather before zooming off on a Ducati. The viewer spends most of the spot inside our heroine's apartment as she makes a wardrobe selection. The tenuous connection to T-Mobile is revealed only in the final seconds. She was presumably test -driving the motorcycle, as we should test -drive T-Mobile. Ah, now we get it.

Progressive 's Flo
Example 2: Flo. These spots for Progressive insurance are like celebrity-gossip shows on E!: They're mind-numbingly annoying, but we just can't look away. In "Good Night, Flo," we're invited inside her quirky dream, which includes a squirrel stealing a nut from a chipmunk family (not to worry, it goes to squirrel jail). We had to give agency Arnold credit here, because Flo's dream appropriately begins with a shot of her car-shaped bed and a spoken list of Progressive discounts. The squirrel-chipmunk fiasco is merely a comical diversion from the point of the ad.

Theory 1: Maybe they're simply selling sex -- the old-school approach (Go Daddy, for example). But it doesn't apply in these campaigns. Neither Flo nor T-Mobile Girl is enticing consumers with overt sexuality.

Theory 2: Maybe the characters are meant to represent the brand themselves. We ruled this out, because we couldn't imagine that Progressive wanted us to think of it as an adorable but irritating company with a squeaky voice. And why would T-Mobile want us to identify it as a less-cool, anorexic version of Apple?

Theory 3: Maybe we're supposed to like them so that we have a positive association with the brand. We totally buy this explanation with Flo. But all we know about T-Mobile Girl is that she's attractive and likes pink. If that 's all we're getting, why not go the distance and put her in a low-cut top and tight skirt? At least T-Mobile would capture more of the 18-to-24 male demographic. A lot of investment is being made in elaborate sets, plot development and original music, yet after a 60-second spot we don't know anything more about her. The character doesn't even have a name.

Flo has more than 3 million Facebook fans, and -- love her or hate her -- most people who've seen her commercials feel they know her. T-Mobile Girl doesn't have a Facebook page. And men who see the commercials aren't even sure they're attracted to her, because sex wasn't made an explicit component.

What's the lesson? Sell sex or don't, but don't get hung up in-between.

On one end of the spectrum, the new spokeswoman can be a character unto herself, and some brands, such as Progressive , have done a good job of letting consumers get to know her. On the other end, sex still sells: The Fiat 500 commercials make one thing clear: Model Catrinel Menghia is hot, and maybe if you buy a Fiat you'll somehow get to see her naked.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is caught in no-man's land, with a "character" who possesses neither a memorable, likable personality nor full-on sex appeal.

Why can't a spokeswoman be both a sex object and an interesting person? The feminist in us thinks that this is a great idea. The marketer in us knows that men will be too distracted by cleavage to learn much about a character in 30 seconds.

Matthew Siegal is co-founder and chief operating officer of Indaba Media. Sara Friedlander is a specialist and VP at Christie's.
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