Gardasil’s Atypical Ad Campaign
TV COMMERCIAL FEATURES NORMAL GIRLS TO DEADEN PUBLIC BACKLASH
Most of the advertisements we see on television, in which women are prominently featured, utilize actresses with above average looks. It does not matter what kind of product is being pitched; the housewives, teachers, or athletes they portray are typically more beautiful than any normal person you might meet on the street. Exceptions to this rule occur when the product is geared towards the elderly or the overweight. In those instances, they often exaggerate their differences to emphasize the importance of the commercial’s message.
Lost in all of the controversy surrounding the new HPV vaccine, Gardasil, is the surprising way in which its manufacturer (Merck) has decided to market the product. Instead of utilizing beautiful (for lack of a better term) girls to espouse the benefits of receiving the vaccine (they pledge to be ‘one less’ statistic,) Merck has chosen normal looking individuals for the ads. Take a gander at the commercial to see what I mean:
We are all aware of the adage ‘sex sells,’ right? Ironically, when the product being sold is distinctly tied to the consequences of unprotected sex, and has generated a great deal of controversy, it seems to no longer apply. It is quite obvious to me that the makers of Gardasil are trying to avoid the standard use of exceptionally beautiful women in these particular ads because they fear some kind of backlash from the very same people they are trying to persuade into purchasing the vaccine.
This might seem like a pretty callous thing to say, but I do not believe the women they have depicted in the ad are the only ones at risk of contracting an STD like HPV. There is not one classic ‘hottie’ in the bunch. I realize ugly people need lovin’ too. Teenagers who engage in premarital sex are found across most categories of individuals. The ad fails to reinforce this idea by focusing on a particular group who seem less feminine than one would expect. I would be shocked if all of these girls are actually straight.
The first person featured in the ad (vowing to be ‘one less’) appears to be a skateboarder; an activity we typically associate with males. She is followed by a girl playing basketball. While it is more common to find a woman on a basketball court than a half-pipe, it contradicts images we often see depicted on shows like Friday Night Lights where a stereotypical teenage cheerleader is the most sexually active of her peers. The basketball player is also the only girl shown in the entire ad hanging out with a boy, although he seems to be a competitor and not necessarily a lover.
The next person to make the pledge is a woman at a horse barn. She would most likely be considered fat and undesirable if she was held to the same standards that define sexually desired beauty on most network television programs. That does not make her less attractive in the real world, but she certainly would not be the person shown as an object of lust during prime-time viewing hours.
Then we see and hear from a somewhat famous musician, Kaki King. She is pledging to be ‘one less’ from behind a drum set. Apart from her reputation as a ‘rocker,’ her appearance is notable, if for only her large eyebrows (a physical feature that most beauty makeover programs like What Not To Wear scoff at as being less feminine.) She seems rather manly to me, definitely not the typical flute playing female musician we would normally see depicted on TV.
A considerably older woman speaks next, who serves to educate the viewer on the more sobering details of the vaccine; like its overall effectiveness and some of the side effects one may experience. While she lectures, we see a photograph of a girl with her parents and then she is shown kicking a soccer ball (god forbid we think she dances ballet or something.) A quick scene, of what appears to be a mother and daughter posing for a picture in front of a car on the side of the road, is seen before the final ‘characters’ in the ad are introduced.
First we see an African-American, who is stomping with a group of girls; reminding us the ‘you should routinely (get it, routine) be screened for cervical cancer.’ Stomping is another activity closely (but not exclusively) associated with men (I guess less feminine is less threatening to a certain demographic.) Following the stompers is a woman sewing ‘one less’ on her sweat shirt. She is there to tell the viewer that the vaccine will not cure cervical cancer (yes, even girly-girls who can sew are at risk.)
The ad closes with a barrage of the voices we previously heard from, repeating Gardasil four times (just in case you forgot) until it comes to an end as girls jump rope (double dutch style) and repeat ‘I want to be one less, one less.’ The viewer is assured that the decision to purchase the vaccine is a good one by a succession of shots showing unknown women smiling (see how happy we are!)
I think it is very strange that Gardasil chose to avoid the obvious images and themes one would expect to see for a product linked to sex. Ads for Trojan condoms and KY Warming Gel, while avoiding the depiction of any sexual acts, certainly suggest a lot in order to convey their importance. (You wouldn’t want to use that KY gel as a sandwich spread, would you?) Of course, those products are not recommended for girls as young as nine-years-old, this vaccine is (up to age 26.)
The Gardasil commercial stands in stark contrast to the examples I cited above. If terms like ‘sexually transmitted disease’ and ‘cervical cancer’ had not been mentioned in the advertisement, you would be hard-pressed to say whether or not it was associated with sexual intercourse at all. All kinds of vaccines that protect people from diseases other than STDs are administered to boys and girls from six months up to their later teens. How many people even know about HPV? The last time most people took a health class they were still concerned about getting ‘the clap’ from a toilet seat.
This blatant manipulation of the ad’s message ( likely on the part of the people who produced it) points to some kind of deliberate reaction to the feedback they may have received from focus groups. I realize they didn’t want to come out and say, “Your little girl may be a slut, so give her the protection she needs” so a certain amount of caution needed to be observed. On the other hand, no girl is going to get HPV from a basketball or a drum set (as they say, you gotta be in it to win it.)
What is Merck trying to tell us so we will believe the product is necessary? Where are these same people that want to convey the right message when other ads are produced? Do they ever stop to say, ‘Hey, let’s not make the father figure clueless about housecleaning’ or ‘Why don’t we take the smart kid out of horn-rimmed glasses and dress him in hipper clothes?’ It is an unfortunate double standard.
This ad is ‘playing it safe’ for one simple reason: Merck stands to make a lot of money from this product. Parents just have to face the awful truth that their sons and daughters are ‘doing it’ and take the proper steps to make them safe. Fear always seemed to work for my parents.
Here’s my pledge: I want to be one less, one less tool manipulated by a multi-million dollar ad campaign.