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.