Inside One Woman’s Powerful Mission to Change the Advertising Industry’s Imagery

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“The objectification of women in advertising includes portraying women as props, parts and/or plastic. Props as in being less than human; parts being, for example, breasts shot and cropped to sell product; plastic being retouched beyond what’s humanly possible. At Badger & Winters we ensure that women are portrayed whole, human and strong. And we evaluate our work with empathy.” Madonna Badger, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Badger & Winters

Blow up female dolls taped to a column with signs that say #womennotobjects

A legend within the advertising world, Madonna Badger, along with business partner Jim Winters, runs the formidable Badger & Winters agency. Recognized for ad campaigns that address gender bias and (in)equality, their namesake firm has earned them the honor of Advertising Age Northeast Small Agency of the Year and the Gold award for best Digital Campaign for #WeSeeEqual, P&G’s global platform to take on unconscious bias, after Badger announced that she and her agency would no longer create imagery that objectifies women. Badger is also the cocreator of an initiative called #WomenNotObjects, a campaign to change how the industry portrays women. It resulted in changing the judging criteria at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. As this year’s president of the jury for the Glass Lions, an award celebrating culture-changing creativity, Badger was particularly pleased to see in the Cannes jury packet a reminder to judges at the festival to consider if, and disqualify, work that objectifies women. Badger recently spoke to SheReportsTM about her mission, breaking the cycle and why we should all stop blaming men.

What impact has the #MeToo movement made on women in our culture?

When I shot an Olay campaign with Aly Raisman, who is sort of one of the founders of the #MeToo movement, I was hanging out with her, and I told her that I’d been sexually molested as a kid. It happened when I was [around] five years old, probably for a year, and it was by my then-best friend’s oldest brother who was 18 or 19. Aly’s bravery gave me the freedom — and also the bravery — to want to talk to her about that and to want to have someone who could totally understand me and what it felt like. This is the only way that all of this is going to come out of the shadows, because there’s so much shame built around sexual molestation, sexual assault. Meanwhile, something like one in four little girls are molested in this country every year.

Until we all are willing to talk about it and have a real conversation, which I believe has been started — that gift of one person’s honesty gives me the strength and the bravery to be honest too and to want to share my story. So, what happens with that and even with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is that we all carry a piece of her story. Aly carries a piece of my story now, which helps lift the weight of that event and makes it lighter for me. I hope that it lifted a bit of that for Dr. Ford as well. I think the energy breaks the pattern, because if it’s no longer a secret, then it can’t be a pattern.

What role does marketing play?

In this culture of objectification — in marketing, games, online, movies and all the different ways that we consume media — the more that women are objectified, the more easily we can dismiss women as not being an equal part of the world. We can also even make up stories about them a lot more easily, or we can assault them a lot more easily.

A sign that says #womennotobjects

Where women are props in stories that have nothing to do with them, where they’re just there for everyone’s amusement or they’re basically made of plastic, retouched beyond human achievability. It’s a lot easier to assault an object than it is to assault an actual, whole, human and strong woman.

Because we see over 5,000 ads a day, that creates a culture of inequality if those images do not show women as whole, human, strong — as equal. In, for example, Grand Theft Auto, one of the ways to pick up points is if you drive down an alley, pick up a prostitute and have sex with her that’s so 3D, it’s crazy. Then she gets out of the car. If you run over her with the car, you kill her and then you can take back the money that you paid her to have sex with her.

Images this year have gotten a lot better, but in beauty and with Instagram [accounts such as] Kim Kardashian and that whole crowd, the retouching that goes on before they post that selfie leads to this world of, “I am how I look.” It’s not what I can do and it’s not my ability to be in this world. It is “how I look is who I am.” The other thing is that as long as women are not portrayed as equal, we won’t be treated as equal, because the portrayal is so ingrained in so many of us that women are less than. We’re sex toys, we’re objects, we’re not to be really taken that seriously.

In this culture of objectification — in marketing, games, online, movies and all the different ways that we consume media — the more that women are objectified, the more easily we can dismiss women.

What inspired you to take action?

We were working for a $10 billion beauty company, trying to come up with an idea of empowering women with makeup. We knew that women love the power of a red lip.  So, we asked a bunch of mostly millennial women what they thought about red lipstick. They responded, “Oh, my God, I love it. It makes me feel great!” But when we asked if they would wear red lipstick when asking for a raise, their response was different. “Oh, hell no. I would never wear red lipstick to ask for a raise.” They didn’t want to be seen as feminine or sexual beings or strong.

Woman wearing a red sweater and red lipstick

We dug deeper and discovered that the objectification of women was something that they didn’t want to be associated with. One piece of research we found was that when college-aged women would take a test in a sweater and blue jeans, and then take the exact same test wearing a bathing suit they scored less. It’s uncomfortable; they feel like they’re being exposed and that their bodies aren’t good enough.

How did you seek to address this?

We started a campaign, #WomenNotObjects. We put together a series of films that reflected back to the world how many ads there were out there that fed the objectification of women. Strangely enough, I was interviewed by Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

It was huge, in every country across the world, with millions of hits. But my goal was to go speak at Cannes Lion about the objectification of women and how everyone in that room could stop it. Whether you are a creative or a strategy person, we can all stop treating women like things and start treating them as whole, human and strong. Because Cannes is the Oscars® of advertising awards, we figured that if we could reach them, then we would be reaching a global stage.

A sign with the title "How do you identify objectification?"

I’d never been to Cannes before, but my business partner and I just started making phone calls. The year I gave my talk, there was an ad that BBDO Brazil did — “DON’T WORRY, BABE. I’M NOT FILMING THIS.”.MOV — and it was for aspirin. It was just so wrong.

The next year at Cannes, and from there on out, they put into the jury packet that objectifying women and stereotyping women and men hurt all of us and work that does those things should not be rewarded.

What can we all do better?

The thing we can all do better is stop blaming men. We cannot blame men for all of these problems and things that have happened. There are so many men that don’t have any of those feelings or don’t treat women in any of those ways.

We’re a lot more alike than we are different, and we need to find ways to stop demonizing men as the problem. That is a victim sensibility, and we need to be in a place where we aren’t anyone’s victims; we are a positive equal to the positive men in the world. That’s how it’s going to change. Until that stops, we’re also not going to achieve equality.

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