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New Frontiers in Advertising: Pitting Women Against Each Other

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If you think Ashley Madison is a weird concept for a dating/hook-up site, meet Cougar Life. It’s for cougars. I think cougars are extraordinarily gorgeous, majestic creatures, so I don’t know why they’d need help finding dates, but apparently they do. So I was shocked when I saw the “cougar” in the Cougar Life commercial.  She was a well-preserved (thanks to an obviously pretty lustful embrace of artifice) woman in her 40’s (?). In the ad she proves her cougar bona fides by…insulting younger women.

If you watch/DVR anything that comes on after 11 PM, you’ll probably run across the Adam & Eve ad I’m always seeing. In it nubile, naked young women run around looking nubile and naked while a narrator opines about mean ol’ Edna, an older (of course), fat (of course) woman who judgmentally rings up purchases some unseen person (someone young, hot and sexy obsv). The message is clear: Edna hates this sexy stuff. And why wouldn’t she? She’s fat and over 20. And as we all know, all fat women and all women over 20 are sexless harridans.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s one of Ashley Madison’s most notorious ads. I’m almost tempted the add a trigger warning here because I do find it so goddamn offensive.

This ad makes a couple of assumptions that are troubling:

  1. Married women are fat and (necessarily) unappealing
  2. Men never prefer fat women

There’s a nasty little thread that runs through all these campaigns. They pit women against each other: young women against older women, single women against married women, fat women against thin women. It’s sick. And people are getting paid to come up this toxic bullshit.

And I just wanna add that one of the reasons I find this so troubling is that I don’t feel this way about other women, be they fat, thin, old, young, conventionally attractive or no. This is stuff is just sick. I will not be pitted against other women. I consider women potential friends and allies, not competition.

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  • Gregor Sansa

    That is, indeed, sick. In fact, it’s so sick, it is probably trolling. Just like the slogan. That is to say: they put up the ad ostensibly because the second woman is disgusting, but actually because they themselves are being disgusting to grab attention. And it creates a bind for the rest of us: respond (feed) or ignore (allow).

    I believe in freedom of speech. But because of ads like that, I fantasize that the person who created an ad should have to put their real name on it, so we could ostracize them IRL. Because there really should be a way to fight back.

  • Lee Rudolph

    So, by the vagaries of scrolling and reloading, I saw the A-M ad before the post it illustrates, and my reaction was “that’s a really bad parody”. If only.

    Life’s too short for that kind of shit.

  • Dallan

    Not to say that this isn’t illustrative of a broader trend (because it is), but my understanding is that both AM and Cougar Life are owned by the same people so the similarity in their ads is probably to be expected.

    • The first thing I thought when I saw that commercial was “I wonder if they’re owned by the same people as AM.”

  • Lurking Canadian

    The weirdest Ashley Madison ad I saw was a TV spot in which husband and wife are both cobweb-covered zombies. OK, so your marriage is dry and boring and whatever, so have an affair. I mean, it’s evil, but it makes sense.

    But after she (he?) hooks up with Ashley Madison, they BOTH come back to life. Apparently this is a way to…I don’t know, rekindle the romance with your spouse by cheating?

    • tsam

      Apparently this is a way to…I don’t know, rekindle the romance with your spouse by cheating?

      It definitely has a proven track record of repairing broken marriages. I mean, it happens all the time, right?

      • LWA

        “Does cheating improve marriage? Of course- I always cheat, and I have been married 6 times!”

        • tsam

          Q to the E to the D.

          Checkmate, libtards.

          Bookmark it.

      • Redwood Rhiadra

        Well, it worked in The Pina Colada Song

        • KadeKo

          Point of order: Were this couple married?

          All I can remember for evidence was the word “lady”, and I don’t know in the 70s if that strictly meant married or not.

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            “my old lady” generally meant married, AFAIK.

            • PhoenixRising

              OTOH, “we don’t need no piece of paper/
              from the city hall/
              keeping us tied and true…”

              That’s a tough call.

              • Pseudonym

                But then again, her old man only managed to keep away the blues for what, two more songs?

            • Hogan

              I was there for the ’70s, and I’m not so sure that was general.

              • Ahuitzotl

                It definitely wasn’t a surety in the circles I moved in then, ‘old lady’ just meant whichever woman was putting up with your slob living, at that point in time

            • I have a vague memory of a book or movie where “old lady” was used by high school students.

  • Halloween Jack

    Ashley Madison has always seemed skeevy, but that Adam & Eve ad? Holy shit, that is fucking obnoxious.

    • djw

      It’s depressing on several levels. In addition to bspencer’s central observation, the implication seems to be that there’s a significant number of people horrified by the prospect that some random Walgreens clerk might infer that they, like the vast majority of adult humans, has an active sex life. I know there’s a lot of sex-shame out there, but if the marketing logic behind this ad is correct about it’s scope and intensity it’s worse than I thought.

      • Origami Isopod

        Given the number of times we’ve heard about a pharmacist refusing to fill a prescription for “moral reasons,” it’s a fear with some basis in fact. Even if the vast majority of clerks don’t give a fuck what they’re ringing up.

        • djw

          Given the number of times we’ve heard about a pharmacist refusing to fill a prescription for “moral reasons,” it’s a fear with some basis in fact.

          Have there been any recorded cases of clerks at drugstores refusing to sell condoms/lubricants on “moral” grounds? I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened somewhere, but I’m not aware of any such cases.

          • nixnutz

            I definitely relate to that anxiety, I still feel weird buying condoms and lube at the drugstore with self-checkout. And I think it’s fairly widespread because ringing up embarrassing stuff is a comedy cliche. Even if only a minority of folks feel this way this marketing approach makes a ton of sense for Adam & Eve. But this ad is terrible, the Edna character is offensively grotesque and probably alienates a lot of their shy masturbator demo.

            • weirdnoise

              Back some time during the Carter administration, I went to a local Thrifty to pick up some condoms. It was pretty busy; there were lines at the checkout lanes. When I reached the head of the line, the young fellow behind the cash register ran to one of the other workers, pointed at me and disappeared. The worker strolled over and completed my transaction. (I didn’t dare look to see how the people waiting behind me responded.) I made some comment like “Huh, maybe he’s Catholic” and walked out with my purchase.

              This wasn’t my last condom purchase, but I never went back to that store.

              • KadeKo

                I haven’t got that close of a call.

                But I’m one of those guys who, up to a certain age, I went to a different drugstore to buy goods from the family planning (sic) aisle than I did for other items, especially Rxes with my name on them.

              • ThrottleJockey

                If you think that’s embarrassing try being in China and going to the big, fancy Chinese equivalent of Target (really in terms of ‘niceness’ it was more like a Bloomies) and trying to describe to someone who doesn’t speak English that you want to purchase a box of condoms. Do you know how hard it is to communicate that, even with hand motions? It took about 20 minutes but it felt like about 60!

                • PhoenixRising

                  I’m topping that: I bought my daughter’s maxi-pads in Korea.

                  Apparently women in Korea don’t ovulate. Because holy moly that was complicated.

            • Brien Jackson

              Yeah this. I don’t know if anyone refuses to sell the stuff, but it can still be an awkward experience and you can definitely get the awkward or disgusted look from the cashier at your KY Jelly personal lubricant purchases. Not a big deal for someone who gives zero fucks like me, but for people who have more social anxiety I’d imagine it’s pretty awful. And, the over the top caricature of Edna notwithstanding, it seems like that’s basically what Adam & Eve is marketing to.

            • Colleen

              Never seen the ad IRL but I watched it on YouTube and thought the Edna character was an homage to Mimi from the Drew Carey Show and she was being mean and judgmental because it was Drew buying all the nookie goodies.

              But I might like that show too much. :)

      • MacK

        The Peoples on DuPont Circle in DC, now the CVS hired white yokels from the suburbs as clerks – they used to love price-checking condoms, preparation H – over the PA – everyone laughed and then remembered never go hire them if they showed up looking for a job.

  • DrDick

    *sigh*

    This is what happens every time that I think maybe – just maybe – some things are getting better in this country.

    • Vance Maverick

      Does it mitigate the shame to consider that, since AM didn’t really have female customers, this ad was actually aimed at men, to persuade them that the (fake) women they would meet there would be the survivors of a catty competition?

      No, I suppose it doesn’t.

      • Ahuitzotl

        AM didn’t really have female customers

        Uh? so it was a site for … men to date other married men? men to ‘date’ hookers? Am I totally missing something here?

        • Women swear they were members and satisfied ones, too, but I read one investigative report that basically made it sound as if it were a huge money pit…and that women members were comically outnumbered by men.

          • The Temporary Name

            I have a friend who was a member and she did well. Or did evil or something.

          • nixnutz

            And maybe more to the point that phony female profiles outnumbered the real ones, and they would send automated messages that men would pay to respond to. So I’m sure there was a large number of real women, and the service probably worked well for them, but a typical male user would mostly or entirely be paying to talk to bots.

            • Ahuitzotl

              wow .. thats slick, in an evil fashion

          • wengler

            It wasn’t a huge money pit, it was a complete and total scam. They used fake profiles and bots to try to get guys to buy in and then charged them money to delete their profiles on their way out. I would venture to guess that this Cougar Life operation is similar.

          • KadeKo

            Here’s the thing: How did the real women at AM compete with all those fake profiles?

            All I can imagine is the fake ones are all astronaut ballerina exotic animal veterinarian supermodels.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          You need to read Gizmodo’s series of articles about AM. Long story short, while there were some real women on the site, they were outnumbered by men by far more than 10 to 1: http://gizmodo.com/almost-none-of-the-women-in-the-ashley-madison-database-1725558944

  • divadab

    AT the invitation of a belly-dancing friend, I attended a “haffla” (basically a dance show) on the weekend. It was a positive experience on many levels – the sheer joy of people (mostly women but also a couple of men) dancing and expressing their joy in dance in a supportive environment was uplifting.

    And many of the dancers were fat – this is America, after all – the kind of fat the derogatory marketing scum at AM and related sites are fond of dehumanizing and dismissing.

    My point is this – when a company or person attempts to profit by mocking and sidelining people who are fat, they are pathologically cruel. Because as former fat person, I know how hard it its to maintain the discipline to get and stay healthily slimmer – and how much harder it is when rather than support you receive mockery.

    Yes these Ashley Madison “people” are moral degenerates. But I suppose you already knew that….

    • so-in-so

      Well of course they are morally degenerate, encouraging people to cheat on their spouse/partner secretly. I don’t think the post’s assumption #1 is true because AM claims ALL their members are married, so I just think the idea is they weed out the unattractive members (telling that they don’t have the same ad with males…).

      Isn’t mostly men and a couple of women pretty standard for most dating sites?

      • Just_Dropping_By

        AM was something like an order of magnitude worse on the sex ratio than most other dating sites though.

  • LWA

    If I could wank wax philosophical for a moment, I think its worth considering how the sexual revolution, whatever other good it may have brought, was also very easy to coopt by the worst aspects of human nature.
    To see sexuality in its most primitive way, of power and status and control, was not the message anyone ever delivered, but its one of the side effects that happened, or perhaps was made more accented.

    This isn’t to say the old ways were unequivocally better- its more that the underlying flaws in our natures aren’t conquered as easily as we wish- we cheer for freedom, and the first thing we do with it is something awful.

    • Because people didn’t cheat before the sexual revolution? What?

      • LWA

        No, moderns didn’t invent awful behavior.

        I am thinking more about how the small-l liberal project of modernity promises to free humanity of the abuses of the dead hand of tradition, only to create new abuses of its own.

        Or more broadly, the tension between the liberation of the self and the formation of community.

        • Origami Isopod

          There are no “new abuses.” The only differences are that the playing field is more level and the abuses are talked about in “polite society.”

        • The Temporary Name

          I am thinking more about how the small-l liberal project of modernity promises to free humanity of the abuses of the dead hand of tradition, only to create new abuses of its own.

          What abuses?

          • Origami Isopod

            People not being “chaste and continent,” I guess. Whatever.

          • LWA

            Liberation of the self can just as easily mean disconnecting from the obligations to the community and group.

            How different is political libertarianism from the ethos of individuality that we champion?

            Look at the rhetoric of the MRAs about alimony, child support, and sexual harassment, and it is always couched in the language of individual rights.

            Just as the interdependent norms of a communal society can easily be used to oppress the vulnerable, sexual liberation and self-expression can be put to the service of the darker aspects of selfishness.

            I was actually trying to agree with Bspencer’s original post, in that the free expression of male sexuality doesn’t hold a lot of benefits for women who don’t conform to the primal model of youth and fertility.

            • The Temporary Name

              I still don’t see a description of what specific thing is a new abuse in the new liberal society.

            • tsam

              Look at the rhetoric of the MRAs about alimony, child support, and sexual harassment, and it is always couched in the language of individual rights.

              But it’s always been that way. That’s the male privilege throwing a temper tantrum over the fact that they’re not allowed to treat women like personal property and it’s becoming less acceptable to try to make rape a nuanced concept rather than a violent crime.

              This libertarian MRA shit isn’t new, it’s the same kind of thing George Wallace was during the civil rights era.

            • Hogan

              Look at the rhetoric of the MRAs about alimony, child support, and sexual harassment, and it is always couched in the language of individual rights.

              Because individual rights are the rhetorical coin of the realm now. When “separate but equal domestic sphere” was the rhetorical coin of the realm, it was couched in that rhetoric. When “natural law” was the rhetorical coin of the realm, same. When “God commands it” was the RCOTR, same. The sexual revolution changed the camouflage that asshole male supremacists needed to adopt. It didn’t create them.

            • I was absolutely not making that point.

            • Hogan

              the free expression of male sexuality doesn’t hold a lot of benefits for women who don’t conform to the primal model of youth and fertility.

              So tell us what “male sexuality” means in this formulation, because I’m not convinced it amounts to more than “no fatties, no butterfaces,” and as a male with sexuality that kinda honks me off.

              • the free expression of male sexuality

                = ball scratching in public.

                • Hogan

                  Oh, well, that’s OK then.

                • tsam

                  We talking through the pants scratching, or taking them out to scratch?

                • We talking through the pants scratching, or taking them out to scratch?

                  I thought we were done with the east-coast-versus-west-coast business from the other post.

                • tsam

                  I thought we were done with the east-coast-versus-west-coast business from the other post.

                  I need a culture lesson for the day I come to visit New York. I mean, can you break out the balls and flick the bugs off and scratch away, or is discretion advised in the form of scratching through the pants pockets.

                  I’m really asking for a pair of friends, see?

              • Lee Rudolph

                So tell us what “male sexuality” means in this formulation

                Insofar as I can discern LWA’s point, his (?) emphasis in the phrase “the free expression of male sexuality” is on the “free expression” part, in which (as I read it) there is most definitely nothing necessarily positive about the “free”dom involved (this reading is consistent with LWA’s explicit doubts about whether “the sexual revolution” was a good thing, in whole or in part or at all). Some men, being “free” to “express” their “male sexuality” by endorsing (even, perhaps, imposing) “no fatties, no butterfaces”, will do just that, which will indeed not “hold a lot of benefits for women”. Nor would those men’s attention even if they weren’t “free” to “express” themselves thus.

                On the other hand, I may just be being too generous. What can I say? I’m a nice guy, except when I’m not!

                • Lee Rudolph

                  I’m a nice guy, except when I’m not!

                  So is N__B!!! And Moral Hazard, too, it goes without saying.

                • LWA

                  Yes, this gets at what I was saying, along with Hogan’s point above, that the various “coins of the realm” are easily put to service of oppression.

                  Its that every advance can be a double edged tool, since people themselves are flawed and prone to injustice.

                  And I would stress also the flaw in the Rousseau-esque notion of the noble purity of our biological natural selves- the biological sex drive is intensely amoral and indifferent to our notions of community and respect.

                  When I look at the cruel pictures above, I don’t see an injustice imposed by church and state, or capitalism.
                  What I see in them is the raw expression of the biological imperative.

                • Lee Rudolph

                  What I see in them is the raw expression of the biological imperative.

                  Okay, then, I believe I misunderstood you.

                  Certainly if I understand you now, I don’t agree: I entirely reject a notion of “the biological imperative”, which exists (or can possibly exist, for human beings) uninflected by cultural contingencies, and the “raw expression” of which (“raw” meaning, presumably, what I tried to get at more precisely in the phrase “uninflected by cultural contingencies”) necessarily leads male humans to select for purposes of mating or coupling (or both or either possibly mixed with other social functions) precisely one of the two women pictured in the Ashley Madison ad above.

          • Given the topic, possibly self-abuse.

        • tsam

          Are you mixing up “small-l liberals” with Charlie Manson and Adi Da, Rashneesh, and their ilk?

          • LWA

            Most of what I remember about the sexual revolution (circa 1970) seems, in retrospect, like a mashup of Rousseau, Ruskin, and Freud. The main spokesmen were the famous like Hefner, but also just the minor figures of shrinks, self-help gurus, and talking heads.

            It seemed that the logic was something like, the natural self was noble and pure, and sexual ethics were unnatural and unhealthy taboos imposed by church and state.
            So by letting go of those hangups, and listening to the primitive desires one could live a more relaxed and healthy life.

            It wasn’t one person, or one coherent manifesto- it was more like the confluence of a lot of agendas melding into one.

            • tsam

              It wasn’t one person, or one coherent manifesto- it was more like the confluence of a lot of agendas melding into one.

              Oh that’s definitely true. But if you take the narrative of young women in that period, most of the debate surrounded access to the pill without the permission of dad or a husband or the douchebag conservative running the drug store.

              But to your observation–that’s exactly why you have to be careful about the narratives. Hefner was, no doubt, a chauvinist piece of shit. He tried to present pure objectification as sexual liberty.

              The Sexual Revolution wasn’t really different than the rest of the revolutionary action going on at the time. Within that subculture, you had everything from utterly harmless deadheads to the Weather Underground. We like to tie them all together, and it’s conservatives who use the worst examples to smear the whole movement. So it’s incumbent upon all of us in this time to remember the gains that were made (and subsequently set way back during the Reagan years), rather than focus on the legacy of the capitalists, opportunists, villager media jackholes and Archie Bunker types that have spent their entire lives trying to undo the progress those kids fought (and sometimes died) for.

    • brad

      I came of age in the days of AIDS terror, so I can’t pretend to say much about the sexual revolution directly. But it seems to me that a huge part of it was society waking up to the fact that women can actually enjoy and want sex, themselves, if you, y’know, bother to recognize and value their agency, and more importantly, women working to make their agency recognized. That it was the 70s and predators like Cosby or seemingly the entire music industry took extra advantage of women trying to establish this space for themselves in the world, or rather the young and vulnerable who were entering an environment they were neither safe in nor fully prepped for, complicates the project but seems ultimately more to be an attempt to prevent the revolution than a side effect.

    • The Temporary Name

      we cheer for freedom

      I’m not sure what “we” is standing for there. There were certainly a whole lot of people who weren’t cheering for freedom who nevertheless took advantage, and there are still many people trying to undermine such freedom now.

    • Origami Isopod

      I’m sorry but this is handwringing nonsense. Plenty of people before the sexual revolution were on the business end of “sexuality in its most primitive way, of power and status and control” — that is, victims of sexual violence, who had no recourse whatsoever in those days. Or women whose husbands cheated on them, who were blamed for being “unable to keep their men from straying.” But it was all swept under the rug, so everything looked nice and clean and tidy from a distance.

      Pretty much anything can be “coopted by the worst aspects of human nature.” If the positives outweigh the negatives, you just shrug and go ahead with it.

      • tsam

        Pretty much everything is co-opted by the worst people ever. That’s the heart of capitalism.

        The Sexual Revolution was, in the beginning, women deciding that they wouldn’t be bound by social expectations of chastity and purity. It didn’t take long before horndog men used it to manipulate women into having sex the same way any cult leader would.

        Blaming shit like Ashley Madison and Cougar Life and advertising that blatantly celebrates crass sexism on the Sexual Revolution is like blaming gay men for AIDS. It’s the same philosophy at work.

    • weirdnoise

      The Hefnerization of sexuality, concomitant with the sexual revolution, did much to take the attitude of male entitlement to sex out into the open. So, yes, the power structure of sexual relations between men and women was brought out into the open as well. But although I don’t think it was made any better by the sexual revolution, I don’t think it was made worse, either. The upside was that people were better able to talk about sex, period, which meant that the issue could be addressed. (And in an unrelated boon, often meant that people were having better sex.)

    • socraticsilence

      Um…if you want to go there I’d personally be willing to argue that based on a survey of Victorian literature and memoirs (admittedly highly unscientific and also unrepresentative given who wrote and had memoirs published) that infidelity was no less common and may have in fact been both more common and more widely accepted in the 19th century than it is in the 21st.

  • Bitter Scribe

    For truth in advertising, the Ashley Madison ad should have had a bunch of zeros and ones up top, to represent the bots who really generated most of the replies.

    • tsam

      I’ll bet if you flip through the pages, there are thousands of zeros on there.

  • John Revolta

    Awful, sure, but I hardly think that pitting woman against each other is a new thing in advertising. And not just sexually- I can remember ads from way back where the better housewife (cook, floor mopper, whatever) won the day (and the handsome provider).

    • You’re right, it’s probably not new, but these seem like a particularly heinous iterations of the phenomenon.

  • Area Man

    Can there be an unoffensive way of saying “give us money and we’ll help you cheat on your spouse”?

    • Try saying it with a British accent.

      • The Temporary Name

        Here is a dating site. (wink)

    • Probably not, but I believe that “Every kiss begins with Kay” was an attempt to do so.

  • And people are getting paid to come up this toxic bullshit.

    Well, the Ashley scamsters were paying themselves. I dunno if they bothered hiring advertising agencies, any more than they bothered wasting money on computer-security advice.

  • Can I just say that is a really pretty kitty cat in the first picture? And I don’t care how old she is.

  • LWA

    @Lee rudolph
    Well, our life experiences have led us to different conclusions, I guess.

    In my experience, the biological human freed from all cultural inflections or norms can do some pretty horrible things.

    I may need to point out again with emphasis that this isn’t a polarity. Criticism of aspects of the sexual revolution isn’t an endorsement of what came before.

    • The Temporary Name

      In my experience, the biological human freed from all cultural inflections or norms can do some pretty horrible things.

      Okay, so which horrible things weren’t in play before the sexual revolution?

      • Bell-bottom suits.

        • weirdnoise

          Nor after. Somehow, sexual liberation meant liberating pants legs as well. That job finished, we’ll hope it never happens again.

    • witlesschum

      I think you either gotta get more specific or give up.

      • LWA

        I’m pointing out the tension between our liberal desire for communal norms that govern behavior like treating everyone with respect, and the individualist desire to be unrestrained by communal norms.
        One specific example is how we as a society treat fat girls, as in the picture above.
        Yes, everyone here is appalled by that, but do we leave it there, as a private sentiment?
        Or do we advocate a communal norm that shames men who don’t show respect for women?
        Would we be swayed by arguments that we are narrow-minded prudes?

        It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that there be a negotiated optimum between the unfettered individual and the tyranny of convention.

    • guthrie

      I’m wondering how you can be freed from all cultural inflections or norms.

  • Denverite

    I was chased by a cougar in central Wyoming about six months ago. I mean an actual mountain lion.

    (By “chased,” I mean I saw it from about 50 feet away going the opposite direction while I was running on Riverton’s surprisingly pretty and well-kept riverwalk.)

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