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Gardasil’s Atypical Ad Campaign

March 1, 2007


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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Cie Kay permalink
    March 15, 2007 4:31 pm

    I hate these ads. I really don’t want to look at a bunch of sweaty, ugly women talking about cervical cancer. The camera reminds us lovingly of the location of the cervix in several shots, such as the up-her-shorts view of the girl with the soccer ball. UGH. Ironically, I think the only attractive woman in the ad is the big-boned blonde with the horses. She doesn’t look fat to me.

  2. Sara J permalink
    March 20, 2007 8:55 am

    The vaccine is actually more effective if you get it before you are sexually active – hence the young girls who might not be into sex.

  3. Addison permalink
    December 10, 2007 10:42 am

    First of all, regardless of the women’s sexual orientation on the commercial, STDs can be passed on through lesbian intercourse, so ALL women, not just girly-girls who have sex with men, should be protected.

    Also, Sara is right, Gardasil is more effective if injected BEFORE you become sexually active. It is important to make these girls feel comfortable that they are doing something strong and good for themselves, instead of making them feel shameful watching overly-sexual women flaunting their bodies on the television commercial like a display for men. We see enough of that.

    Also, the majority of women have sex, regardless of if they live up to your standards of “hottie”. You may be surprised to find out that cheerleaders are no more sexually active than basketball players. Cheerleader-types have been marketed to enough already about STDs, so this is a refreshing, necessary change. Anyway, these girls are definitely not unnattractive, perhaps your judgment of women’s beauty has already been warped by previous commercials and television and pornographic magazines etc?

    If this commercial is for women, why must it be marketed in an appealing way for men?

    This vaccine is so important and will save so many lives. Though money may be made off of the commercial, so many girls are going to see this commercial, and so many lives will be saved from their being made aware.

  4. Kim permalink
    March 31, 2008 12:30 pm

    I’m part of an graduate level advertising class that has to do campaign for this product; I’ve been trying to put my personal politics aside the whole time. I’ve got two younger sisters and while I’m not squeemish about them being sexually active, I am worried about their long term health. I think it’s more important for us to focus on that fact that 1) girls ar human 2) girls will eventually have sex, even if they don’t tell anyone 3) we should teach girls AND the BOYS (or other girls for that matter) they are having sex with to use protection.
    Anyway, I decided to comment not because of my views of the drug, but because I think it’s the easy way out for folks to get caught up in how ‘un-beautiful’ the girls in the ads are. Really? I love how being a tomboy (just b/c someone is a skater doens’t mean they are ‘boyish) or having thick eyebrows (are you serious?!) or being larger than a size 6 (which most of us are) or being black or brown or yellow (i’ll just say “don’t get me started”) means that you are not ‘beautiful’.

  5. Corrie permalink
    April 2, 2008 3:53 pm

    The whole point of the ‘tomboyish-ness’ and activities that are not traditionally associated with femininity is to send a message about diversity and ’empowerment.’ Diversity in that ALL kinds of women supposedly need this vaccine, and empowerment in that women can take control of their risk factors by getting the vaccine (taking control not being a traditionally feminine thing to do). The market for this drug is adolescent girls (whose mamas would be making the decision for them, most likely) and college age women (hence, the counter culture “look-at-me-i’m-different-AND-a-tough-girl-too” kind of image seen pushed in the ad). Frankly, the ads bug me, but not as much as the way this drug has been hyped in the media as the “first ever cancer vaccine.” Please! Let’s report accurately, for once…especially when we’re talking about the health of a huge population of little girls and young women!!!

  6. Jacqueline permalink
    May 27, 2008 8:09 am

    … my beef with this commercial is the HORRIBLE grammer … “i want to be one fewer” is accurate.

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  9. Grace permalink
    February 24, 2009 7:19 pm

    My Mother and my doctor made me get the shot. Well, actually it’s three shots. I, personally, really like the commercial. It’s very informative, and not just in a “take this vaccine, it’ll prevent cancer” kind of way. And about all the girls not being straight…So? Neither am I, but I know I’m still at risk for cervical cancer. Also, I think the skater chick is pretty hot.

    • Jackie permalink
      July 31, 2009 8:52 am

      Man that Skater chick.. I fingered to her for days! She is so hot! I love hearing her talk. I just wanna lick her up and down!

  10. Ungghh permalink
    August 11, 2009 5:27 pm

    WHY on earth would they use such UGLY girls to do this ad. The last thing I would ever put a single dime into is something advertised by ugly slutty girls who are out tramping around and getting diseases.

  11. Laura permalink
    July 9, 2010 11:06 am

    So FINALLY, there’s a commercial that doesn’t feature stereotypically “beautiful” women, and it’s getting crap for it. Newsflash: MOST girls probably aren’t model-esque, and just because they may be tomboys doesn’t mean they’re not straight. Even if they are gay, so what? Lesbians aren’t immune to cervical cancer. Given that the product is designed for young girls that aren’t having sex yet as well, it may not necessarily be appropriate to have images of teens fondling. Sure, there’s the stereotype of the beautiful but slutty cheerleader, but other “regular folk” are having sex too. And being slutty isn’t the ONLY way to get STDs, you can get an STD from sleeping ONCE with ONE person…this product isn’t just for skanks.

    Tampon/pad/birth control commercials can be really weird too, and have imagery that you wouldn’t normally associate with the product. It’s obvious that this commercial is intended to empower all types of women from different backgrounds, and that you DON’T have to be a girly girl.

    If you want to be “one less” manipulated by an ad campaign, then stop watching tv, movies, reading magazines, and close your eyes when you walk into ANY store. Stop listening to music, too. Ad campaigns are ALL designed to use psychology in a way that will make you buy their product, and they’re EVERYWHERE. Getting all worked up because of an ad campaign is stupid – as good consumers, we just need to weigh the pros and cons of products to decide if they’re a good match for us.

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