Attractive Women and Models Only: The Trouble With Cannes -- And Advertising

  • by June 24, 2016
To address the rapid transformations within the industry formerly known as “advertising,” the owners of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (itself a recent name change) have added roughly 11 different digital award categories in the last ten years.

This year, for fans of ad tech and programmatic, who’d be honored (and, more importantly, pay) to be nominated, the festival added the  “Creative Data Lion.” It joins Cyber, Digital Craft, Innovation, Integrated, Mobile,  Media, Promo & Activation, and Titanium Lions, to name a few.

But despite all these added categories, the confab, which wraps this weekend — and has blown up to steroidal proportions in the last decade with the influx of major brands and Facebook-sized tech companies — has been slammed this year by the same age-old industry problem: sexism and misogyny.

Though I’ve been to Cannes many, many times, this year I was sidelined, watching the social media feeds from New York. And boy, did that get dispiriting quickly.



Despite so much advocacy for change in the industry, there’s a huge disconnect when it comes to  diversity for women and people of color. This will not abide in an age of social media.

Last year, Cindy Gallop, female activist, former president of BBH New York, and founder of If We Ran the World and, introduced the “Glass Lion, ” to reward breakthrough work that “shatters gender bias and prejudice in ads.”  

This year, the news from the festival started out encouragingly enough, with an announcement from Aline Santos, executive vice president of global marketing for Unilever, of a new marketing move. Called “Unstereotype,”  it’s a pledge to improve the depictions of women in ads, across more than 400 Unilever global brands.  

A recent  research project funded by Unilever revealed  that just 3% of women are shown in professional, managerial jobs; 1% are shown as being funny, and 2% intelligent. (I've got to say, that sounds low to me.)

You’d think, if Unilever were to give its agencies marching orders about developing respectful, unstereotypical creative depicting three-dimensional women, that it would first make sure that the agencies have the talent to deliver on it. Enlightened ads don’t come from a vacuum; they are the result of enlightened hiring and management practices and proper mentoring. But nothing about agency culture seems to be keeping up with Unilever’s new directives.

As the events at the festival progressed, Gallop was almost forced to become a human switchboard, the only one who could receive, interpret and tweet out the news from Gender Tone Deaf Central.  

First, she revealed that a book on creativity placed in every attendee’s welcoming bag only included interviews with ad men.

After that, she tweeted about a cringeworthy invitation to a private party sponsored by VaynerMedia and Thrillist that spelled out that it was for “attractive women and models only.”  (The men had no such constraints.)  

Though VaynerMedia CEO and Internet guru Gary Vaynerchuk took to Twitter to condemn the invitation immediately (and was applauded for that action),  he blamed it on iGetIn, a “third-party vendor” — when actually the company had used this vendor many times.  And though he said he was “mortified,” he later told Campaign US that he did not see the email “as a representation of sexism in the ad industry but a typical approach for a party at a club.”

Then there were the degrading ad winners.

To back up, the Cannes Lions showcase the tippy-top, say 2%, of ad creativity worldwide. So how an ad from Almap BBDO, an agency in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for Bayer Aspirin, that jokes about a man recording sex with a woman without her consent, made it into the competition, never mind won a Bronze, is mind-boggling.

The ad is simple and amateurish-looking. It shows two boxes of the packaged aspirin in different strengths, red (regular) and green (extra-strong) under a line of text saying “Don’t worry babe, I’m not filming this.” That’s in red ink. The (meaning he really did film it) appears next to it, in green. (Meaning the guy needs the stronger aspirin when the girlfriend finds out the truth.)

By the way, the issue of sex without consent is a hot-button one right now in Brazil. Gallop provides this context: "Police in Brazil are hunting for at least 30 men who allegedly gang raped a 16-year-old girl and filmed the incident, posting the footage on social media."  Excedrin headache number 4 billion: when your head explodes with outrage over an ad for Bayer.

Another ad at Cannes, awarded a Gold for Outdoor, also came from a retrograde and broey place. For Inter-flora, from Australia, the ad shows a lovely bouquet of flowers stashed in the garbage in a roadway. Next to it, two lines of tiny type read:  “Our job is to make the finest bridal bouquets. Your job is not to sleep with a bridesmaid.”  

Never mind all the breakthroughs in digital effectiveness or tracking consumers.  How hard can it be to get gender sensitivity training?

We have to stop the lies, the regressive, reactionary behavior, and the network-wide cover-ups.  The jury that awarded the Bayer work was headed by the chief creative office of J. Walter Thompson, Brazil.  You’ll recall that JWT’s attorneys moved to dismiss the discrimination suit against its former CEO Gustavo Martinez, on the grounds that it was “frivolous.”

Martinez was recorded on video making a joke about being “raped, and not in a good way,” at a JWT corporate meeting in Miami.  The JWT lawyers claim that other employees who were present were not offended, and that Erin Johnson was just trying to make a “media splash” by filing the suit.

The news of these outrageous cases of sexism and misogyny at Cannes have blown up on Twitter, and been written about by major media. It makes women feel uncomfortable in their own skin. And it makes advertising, and this award festival, look like a laughing stock.

Back in the “Mad Men” days, Ogilvy & Mather founder David Ogilvy famously said, “The consumer is not an idiot. She is your wife.”

We need to update that: Men and women are not idiots. We  need each other to be partners.

Where does this appalling lack of respect come from? Somewhat from “Mad Men” days, but more from Internet, tech and slut-shaming culture; the everyday violence, and abundance, of online porn; and the clear comfort that creative departments seem to take with the staffing of young, bro-ey white men.These dudes are not empty suits, so much as empty T-shirts. Let’s start to fill the emptiness with compassion lessons.

Not paying proper attention to 50% of the population is cheating. As Gallop has said, “This is not a way to win the future.”

21 comments about "Attractive Women and Models Only: The Trouble With Cannes -- And Advertising ".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Tobi Elkin from MediaPost, June 24, 2016 at 11:11 a.m.

    Vaynerchuk is a jerk. He makes news, then makes more news by apologizing. Smart strategy. But we don't need any more jerks. It's got to be one of the more egregious crappy moves in a while.

  2. Jeff Sawyer from GH, June 24, 2016 at 11:36 a.m.

    Somehow the "most creative people in advertising" keep reverting to the same old babe formula.

    Because it's safe, because clients approve it, and sometimes because creatives and clients just like hanging out with models on photo shoots.

    It's the dumbing down of the planet. Next thing you know the UK will be dropping out of the – oh never mind...

  3. Craig Campbell from Campbell and Associates, June 24, 2016 at 12:55 p.m.

    Unfortunately us "Mad Men" keep shooting ourselves in the foot.

  4. Barbara Lippert from, June 24, 2016 at 1:10 p.m.

    Tobi-- do you think he did it on purpose to get attention? 
    Jeff- we need the sexist exit! 
    Craig-- I see what you did there! very clever! one of my favorite episodes-- mowed down by the mower! Just when he had his foot in the door! ;-)

  5. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, June 24, 2016 at 1:59 p.m.

    Hire people from outside the industry. And I don't mean from tech.

  6. Michael Draznin from Draznin Consulting, June 24, 2016 at 4:13 p.m.

    @barbara Of course he did it intentionally. He has a legacy of clumsy ploys like that. @tobi I disagree with your reference of it being as smart strategy. Look no further than your informed description of his reputation. 

  7. Barbara Lippert from, June 24, 2016 at 5:26 p.m.

    UPDATE: Scam ad, paid for by the agency to win awards. "All Bayer work created by Almap BBDO has been withdrawn from the Festival," BBDO said in a statement. "The work was approved by the local client to be run in Brazil. However, the media was paid for by Almap BBDO which contravenes the Cannes entry regulations. We regret this and apologize to the festival organizers and our client for any embarrassment caused.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 24, 2016 at 5:34 p.m.

    Look at the political aspect, not just in the US, but the world. Fascism, the great exploiter of all people, has raised its murderous head. And fear, fear of losing $ in particular and then the fear of losing power and control on multudinous levels, rules. Sexism has top billing, with the war on women's health headling. But then again, since I still am a persona non gratia by MediaPost, unless you read this, it will not be seen by anyone else or counted as a reply. 

  9. Chuck Lantz from, network, June 24, 2016 at 6:13 p.m.

    The more I read about the zombie-like existance of sexism in advertising, the more I've come to believe that the only way to get rid of it is for everyone on the wrong side of the issue to die of old-age. 

    Which is why I strongly encourage chain-smoking, heavy drinking and high-risk adventure sports such as BASE jumping, sky-diving, mountain climbing and quadruple diamond skiing for all ad execs who, so far, cannot be swayed from their deeply ingrained sexism by lawsuits, attempts at education, logic or threats of violence.

    The sooner the better. 

  10. George Parker from Parker Consultants, June 24, 2016 at 6:36 p.m.

    Barbara... Surely the answer is to simply ban all ads from Brazil. Particularly as they all seem to be in English.

  11. Gerard Corbett from Redphlag LLC, June 24, 2016 at 7:50 p.m.

    Until the industry openly admits and counters the obvious "sexism and misogyny" nothing will change.  Cannes it seems is just focused on "party" and not "purpose." 

  12. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER replied, June 24, 2016 at 8:48 p.m.

    Someonce once answered the question: How do you sell Volkswagen Beetles to women? with "You tell them it costs $1899, gets 26 miles to a gallon gas, has rear-mounted engine so it won't get stuck in snow, and has an air-cooled engine so you don't need water."

  13. Roger Berk from Creative Technology, June 24, 2016 at 9:29 p.m.

    Barbera Lippert, 

    Pop Culture defines itself. It is a phenomenon not a choice. Were the great artists of all time misogynists. Is beauty in art and nature somehow discriminatory against the less attractive things.

    I don't get your point. Is George Clooney or Brad Pitt a bad choice in talent because they are fit or attractive to women ? 

    Advertising and media appeal to our intellect on some levels and our emotions and drives at a more base level. 

    Are you also a strong critic of the fashion industry and publications like WWD, Vogue, Cosmo, etc ? 

    Do you believe Taylor Swift is an affront to less attractive singers ?

    Do you believe that people imagine themselves in the roles of their 'idols'. 

    I am not a misogynist. I support equality in all forms. I support freedom of speech and creativity without reservation or political pressure to force standards of 'beauty' on the public, "for their own good". 

  14. Laurie Petersen from PSS, June 25, 2016 at 8:41 a.m.

    Thank you, Barbara.

  15. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, June 25, 2016 at 9:29 a.m.

    Where do I go to turn in my vagina? I honest-to-God can't take it anymore. Glass Lion? What the fuck is it for? Is it for women who create hence breaking the glass ceiling? Is it for depictions of women? Is it for commercials directed at women? Does anybody know? Advertising deals in stereotypes -- that's how you get messages across in :30 seconds. Frankly, things like "Like a girl" have become stereotypes. Should we get rid of dumb dad and the man your man should smell like and beer frat guy and GE developer dweeb? They're all stereotypes but they happen to be men. The industry is becoming filled with "professional women" and by that, I mean designer-togged ladies who make their living talking about the "plight of women" and going to the glamour spots of the planet to do so. I mean really. You want to talk about plights, let's talk about women working double shifts at McDonald's and Wal-Mart not someone who didn't get the ECD gig so they don't have an assistant. I know I'm going to be savaged for this and I've bitten my tongue off for years not saying it but I'm over it. And while we're at it, scam ads at Cannes? I am shocked that gambling is going on in this establishment.

  16. Barbara Lippert from, June 25, 2016 at 10:08 a.m.

    Stereotypes totally include dumb dad and developer dweeb and beer frat guy. Hate them, too. 
    Point taken on complaining at Cannes and scam ads.
    But there's a level of cluelessness still that has to change. 

  17. Barbara Lippert from, June 25, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

  18. Barbara Lippert from, June 25, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

    the above is the itunes podcase "Does Cannes matter?" We cover all the topics not covered in the above column. 

  19. Anna Christina S. from Freelance Designer replied, June 25, 2016 at 12:41 p.m.

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Diversity initiatives? Diversity support? What the fuck is it for? Is it for ad agencies that take photos of black visitors and put it on their social media as if they were diverse themselves? Is it for agencies that make a Big Show of supporting minority teenage students but turn Black and brown adult creatives and vendors away from their door telling them someone else was “just a better cultural fit”? The industry is becoming filled with “professional diversity pimps” and by that I mean all-white agencies that trot out ethnic entertainers and poets and dancers and interns for show, and ESPECIALLY for photo ops, but are as vapid as ever if you pull back the curtain at all and look at who they actually hire.

    Maybe the entire industry would be better off if gender and ethnic diversity, if anyone actually gave a shit about it or thought it made a difference, focused on numbers and accountability and not just vague, meaningless awards and press releases.

  20. Joe DePreta from Launchpad, June 26, 2016 at 10:21 a.m.

    The bloat that has become Cannes is hellacious. 1997 was the last year I went. As the lyirc goes, "Lots has happened since we last spoke." Thank you for putting the woeful events in context so effectively.

  21. Jim English from The Met Museum, June 27, 2016 at 10:46 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara.  I'm thinking of comments you once made about a Victoria Secret ad campaign.  Then and now we have still the "boob noir" element.

    "Indeed boob noir fits right into our new atavistic culture in which, in the media at least, we worship alpha males and super models, who are the only women allowed to be sexual beings."

Next story loading loading..