“Hail to the V”: A Second Look

Last week I posted a response to the Summer’s Eve ad campaign “Hail to the V,” focusing on the television spot “The V.”  This week I take a longer look at the full campaign, including magazine and web ads, and the Summer’s Eve website. While my post last week centered on “The V,” news outlets, blogs, and even comedy television shows (thank you, Stephen Colbert) have been abuzz with their distaste for the campaign’s other ads.  These ads have since been pulled from rotation after complaints of sexism and racism.  Thanks to Adweek.com, you can watch them here.

The ads feature hands acting as virtual, ahem, vagina puppets speaking to their owners(?) about vaginal care. The most offensive ads feature a black and Hispanic character; the Hispanic character says “Ay-yi-yi” and breaks into Spanish partway through the commercial, while the black character talks about hair maintenance and says things like “Lady Wowza.”  I’m pretty sure the racist elements speak for themselves–I can’t imagine someone watching these ads and not being offended.  The ad agency responsible for the campaign, The Richards Group, responded to inquiries from Adweek.com saying, “We are surprised that some have found the online videos racially stereotypical. We never intended anything other than to make the videos relatable, and our in house multi-cutural experts confirmed the approach.”  I’ll give the ad agency a little bit of credit here–they tried to inject a taboo subject with a little whimsy and cheeky humor–but vagina puppetry is something that, as Stephen Colbert put it, “you can’t unsee”, and I can’t believe that The Richards Group saw nothing wrong with a black vagina sporting an Afro and talking about “my boo.”

The racist ads have since been pulled from the Summer’s Eve website, though a white talking vagina still welcomes visitors to the page while referring to itself as “the wonder from down under.”  The website itself has some actually helpful and redeeming aspects, including segments that provide information about vaginal health.  The “ID the V” section allows the user to test their knowledge of the female genitalia by naming its parts, while the “Get Educated” section has a fun (albeit horribly named) “Vagina Owner’s Manual” that explains how best to keep your vagina healthy, what happens during pregnancy, and even encourages women to see their gynecologist for a yearly exam.  The website also includes an article called “The Vagina–Shifting the Conversation From Taboo to Celebrated,” by Dr. Carla Stokes, who runs a non-profit focused on empowering young girls. (According to this press release, Dr. Stokes is a “partner” in the brand.) Perhaps the Summer’s Eve people should have taken their own quiz, however, since the products they advertise are meant for use on the vulva, and not in the vagina.  As this fantastic article articulates, “Regardless of what one might think about the value of or necessity for these femcare products, an advertising campaign for such products must convey accurate information. Like where to use them.”

Unfortunately, the website does all the (vagina) talking but none of the walking.  It reinforces the taboo it pretends to reject by disembodying and mystifying the female sex organ, and placing its power squarely within its ability to arouse the opposite sex.  It’s not particularly empowering to praise the vagina for its ability to “make men drop to their knees.”  Statements like these imbue women with value only through their relationship to–and indeed, the denigration of–the opposite sex, and in relation to the sex act itself.  (Statements like this also negate or, at the very least, ignore alternative sexualities.  The website does not mention lesbian or bisexual health or sexual activity.) Advertisements like the one here, featuring Helen of Troy, suggest that her impact in mythology is due to her genitals–that not simply her beauty (or god forbid, something like her intelligence or sense of humor) would be enough to earn her a place in mythology.  Furthermore, the tone of the ad suggests that women should be proud of the vagina’s ability to yield violence among men (an idea furthered in the “The V” advertisement discussed previously.)  The equation of sexuality and violence is troubling, to say the least.

Ultimately, Summer’s Eve is trying to pull a fast one on consumers, using pseudo-feminist rhetoric to imply that being a woman is simultaneously awesome and also requires a regular dose of ‘freshening up.’  Your vagina may help launch a thousand ships, but it’s still damn dirty.  And that’s the real shame in the “Hail to the V” campaign.

An Examination of the “Hail to the V” Campaign

*This post is the first in a series on the new ad campaign from Summer’s Eve.

Recently I was made aware of the newest ad campaign for the Summer’s Eve feminine products line, entitled “Hail to the V.” I learned about this campaign after a female family member called me to tell me about the “offensive” ad she had just seen with her husband; she asked if I, the “resident feminist” of the family, also found the campaign offensive.  (I do.)

The commercial shows us a series of supposedly powerful women through time–a Cro-Magnon woman holding a baby, a Cleopatra figure standing before a cheering crowd, an Asian woman watching two men fighting for her, and a Medeival-era princess character overseeing a joust.  The Carmina Burana-esque music tells the viewer this is an epic–a tale of events that have occurred throughout history.  The following is the full text:

“It’s the cradle of life.  It’s the center of civilization.  Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it.  One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.  So come ladies, show it a little love!  Cleansing washing cloths from Summer’s Eve: Hail to the V.”

What is this thing that men are willing to kill for? Vagina.

According to a statement by Angela Bryant, the director of feminine care for Summer’s Eve, the campaign is about “empowerment, changing the way women may think of the brand, and removing longstanding stigmas: Summer’s Eve is not a means to confidence, rather it’s a celebration of confidence, of being a woman, and taking care of their bodies.” Bryant is speaking here of the full campaign, which includes print ads, this television spot, and a website accessible here.  (I should note that some of the problems discussed regarding the television ad are handled more satisfyingly by the website; I will discuss this in my next blog post.) Bryant is right to identify the stigmas associated with female genitalia–in many cultures it is considered taboo to talk about female genitalia, sexual pleasure, and menstruation. The silence surrounding the vagina leads to its mystification–it is foreign, unknown, unthinkable.

In theory, speaking about the pleasure and power of the vagina can mitigate its taboo-ness. Simply speaking about the taboo is not helpful, however, when the words spoken are not chosen carefully.  Though you could argue that the obvious confidence of the women depicted represents a rejection of “longstanding stigmas,” the message of “empowerment” is depleted by the commercials obvious reinforcement of the mystification of the woman and female genitalia.  The tagline “Hail to the V” asks the viewer to essentially worship the vagina, an idea that is certainly prevalent in popular culture (I’m reminded of a scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin when the title character is told he is “putting the pussy on a pedestal.”)  While I’m certainly not offended by the idea of appreciating a woman, I do take offense to the ideas that 1) she should be appreciated for her genitalia, specifically, and 2) her genitalia should be worshiped as this unknowable “it”. By centering on the vagina itself, the sense of the whole woman is lost; it is not the woman who is “the most powerful thing on Earth,” but merely her sexual organ. The women depicted are devoid of strength, personality–indeed, personhood–and are represented merely as bearers of powerful sex organs.

There’s something inherently, well, icky about the whole thing.  The women in this commercial are celebrating the fact that their vaginas are apparently so incredible that men will kill each other for…what exactly? The beauty of the vagina? Its ability to create life? Or, more likely, the chance to have sex with it?  After all, the commercial isn’t really selling the power of “it,” but of what “it” can do.  What Summer’s Eve is really saying is that men have been fighting over the chance to have sex with pretty women’s vaginas for centuries.  The vagina–and therefore the woman it represents–derives its power from the woman’s refusal or acceptance of a male sexual partner.  Not a particularly empowering sentiment, is it?

And can we talk about the fact that all of the men in this commercial are trying to prove their right to access our vaginas by attacking each other with giant phalluses?  Or the implication that women will grant access to their vaginas to men who successfully kill the other men vying for access rights?  Is this, as Summer’s Eve wants us to believe, woman power?

No thanks, Summer’s Eve–I prefer using my vagina for good.