09/25/2014 03:20 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Bad Ads: Does Sexism Sell?

Colin Hawkins via Getty Images

There's an old saying that "sex sells." While some bad ads do objectify women to sell beer or web domain registration services, the following commercials aren't actually selling sex. Instead, they seem to be testing a new theory: Sexism sells.

The makers of these ads are banking on two assumptions:

  • All of their customers are men.
  • All men either disrespect or actively resent women.

Here are some potential fixes to four surprisingly bad ads.

Bad Ad #1: Audi

I imagine that the creators of this spot thought they were making a mini-movie in the style of a high school romantic comedy. Unfortunately, here's the plot they came up with: Boy wants Girl. Girl rejects Boy. Boy kisses Girl anyway because taking the things you want makes you a man and a rebel.

That's not romance. That's sexual assault.

They try to smooth over that by making the girl smile after the uninvited kiss, but consent cannot be given after the fact. And there is no implied or explicit consent here.

Watch the ad again to see how the other male and female characters are portrayed. The mother is making things worse for her son by lying to him. The sister is mocking him cruelly. But dad (who of course is the parent who controls the car) is there to save his son by granting him the magic keys that will restore his manhood. And let's not forget the Prom King. He hits the main character because the commercial wants you to view the kiss as a transgression against his rights (not against her body.) At the end, the "hero" is proud of his black eye. His manhood has been reclaimed. Now go buy an Audi and you'll be a man, too.

Think of the non-misogynistic ad that they could have produced if they had picked their market segments based on psychographics instead of demographics. I took the liberty of writing a similarly themed spot that focuses on making you want to buy the luxury car you couldn't have even dreamed of affording in high school.

Audi (Fixed)

In his bedroom, a boy in a rented tuxedo is straitening his bow tie. It's his junior prom. He looks uncertain about what he's wearing and he seems scared, stiff, and uncomfortable. He forces himself to take a deep, relaxing breath. He reassures himself in the mirror...

BOY: (To himself) Everything's going to be perfect, everything's going to be perfect...

Cut to the boy about to pin a corsage on his date at her parents' house. Before he even gets the flower close to her she says...

GIRL: Careful, don't stick me with the pin.

Cut to her parents taking their picture on the front lawn. He goes in to kiss her on the cheek, but before he makes contact.

GIRL: Careful, don't smear my make up.

Cut to the prom. He's pouring her a glass of punch.

GIRL: Careful, don't spill anything on my dress.

Cut to them awkwardly slow dancing.

GIRL: Careful, don't step on the shoes.

The Boy isn't annoyed by any of this. He was nervous about the date in general and he doesn't want to mess anything up. He really wants everything to be perfect and seems to consider all of the pre-emptive warnings as helpful advice.

Cut to the parking lot. They are getting into his parent's new Audi. Before her hand has even touched the door handle, he says...

BOY: Careful, don't scratch the paint job.

It's Girl's junior prom, too, and it turns out she's every bit as nervous as Boy is. Echoing the opening shot, she forces herself to take a deep, relaxing breath...

Boy is still nervous, but he seems relieved to realize that they're both nervous together. They get in the car and close the doors.

ANNOUNCER'S VOICE OVER: Audi. Everything's Going To Be Perfect.

Bad Ad #2: Madden NFL 15

According to this ad, women don't like football. Or video games. They only enjoy forcing their boyfriends to watch boring movies with subtitles. The message here seems to be, "You know this game is good because it's full of things women hate."

Well, guess what? Women do play games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of gamers are women. (A recent article in The Guardian reports that they actually represent 52% of the gaming market.) EA Sports ought to know better. And as for football, 44% of football fans are women. The NFL ought to know better, too.

Instead of portraying women as fun-hating shrews, here's how an ad could have focused on the game's features in order to convince football fans and gamers (with or without a Y chromosome) that they need to get this year's edition even though they already own last year's version.

Madden NFL 15 (Fixed)

Over a montage of in-game footage, an announcer reads a series of pull quotes from various reviews. In the middle of the last review quote, we cut away from the game footage to a living room where it is revealed that Kevin Hart is the announcer. He is holding a script and, incongruously for the living room setting, he has headphones on and he's talking into a microphone. Sitting next to him on a couch are Dave Franco and his real-life girlfriend Alison Brie who are playing an intense game. Franco is annoyed and turns to Hart.

DAVE FRANCO: (Momentarily distracted from the game) We're trying to play a game here!

KEVIN HART: And I'm trying to record a commercial!!!

ALISON BRIE: (In trash-talk mode) Ha! First down, sucker!

Bad Ad #3: Dodge Charger

Dear Dodge: Some men actually love their wives.

This ad could have been about rebelling against almost anything other than women. This is what would have happened if the repressed rage had been directed at another target.

Dodge Charger (Fixed)

A man is sitting in a conference room watching a PowerPoint presentation. Like everybody else in the room, he seems bored and resentful. Cutting to a close up of his face, we hear his internal monologue/manifesto. Periodically, the action will quickly cut to his fantasy POV shots of beautiful scenic roads blurring past him.

MAN'S VOICE OVER: Go ahead. Spend another 5 minutes talking about that same PowerPoint chart. While you make time stand still, I am racing down the road. I am on Big Sur. I am on the autobahn. I am feeling the rush that only comes when you have the power of a precision-engineered automobile in your hands. I may look like I'm trapped in this conference room, but I can feel the wind in my hair. I can feel the tires gripping concrete. While you stand there and talk and talk and talk, know this: I am miles away from here and miles ahead of you. And at the end of the day...

SFX of a car engine roaring in rebellion.

MAN'S VOICE OVER: ...I will be free.

Bad Ad #4: Allstate Mayhem

This spot is from a larger campaign where Dean Winters plays the personification of mayhem. Mayhem takes different forms in each spot, but he always represents the thing that the insurance owner has no control over. The message is that you need insurance to protect you from the outside world. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, this is the only spot in the campaign where the "mayhem" isn't actually to blame. The accident here is the driver's fault. The female jogger isn't causing havoc. The male driver is. If that driver had hit your car instead of a lamppost, would you expect the jogger to pay to fix your car?

The underlying assumption of this ad is that it's not your fault for ogling women (even if you're doing so at the expense of watching the road.) Women apparently have the power to force you to look at them that way. You're not a creep after all! They were asking for it by being attractive!

This ad was so desperate to add an extra joke to the campaign that it violated the messaging of the campaign. Maybe putting the Mayhem character in a non-manly outfit is worth a cheap laugh, but it gets away from the goal of selling insurance to people who don't think that accidents would ever happen to them. A quick costume change could have gotten a similar laugh without being off-brand or horribly sexist.

Allstate Mayhem (Fixed)

The Mayhem character is sitting on a suburban lawn. In addition to his regular suit, he is also wearing a white headband with furry cat ears attached to it. He has drawn cat whiskers on his face like he's a kid who just visited a carnival face-painting booth.

MAYHEM: I'm an adorable little kitty cat. My owners worship me because I'm their precious furry bundle of love. So I don't think twice about darting across the street to check out that bird noise in the neighbor's tree.

As he says this, he makes good on his word and bounds into the street. A car stops short to avoid hitting him. For a split second, the driver looks relieved that they missed the cat... but then they get rear-ended by another car.

MAYHEM: That's when you find out, your cut-rate insurance... it ain't paying for this. So get Allstate.

He licks his hand uses it to preen his hair like a cat cleaning itself.

MAYHEM: Save cash and be better protected from Mayhem like me.

Why Insult Over Half of the Market?

All marketing is niche marketing. You can't expect your ad or your product to appeal to all customers. You have to pick your segments. (For example, is your brand going after a high-end market or are you selling to a price-conscious consumer?) That being said, you shouldn't target your audience by explicitly denigrating other audiences... especially when you've crudely drawn your segments along gender lines.