Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Yet another tone-deaf video from the EU

A familiar pattern is emerging for the European Commission’s promotional videos: Commission pays six-digit figure for a promotional video, video is released, video causes uproar, video is pulled. Whether its racism, sexism or neocolonialism, the private consultancies who make videos for the Commission seem to have developed a talent for causing offense.

The latest offender is a video promoting the launch of the Commission’s ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ campaign last week. The campaign is meant to attract young women to careers in the sciences. Apparently the makers of the video decided that the best way to do that was to depict science as an episode of Sex in the City.

The video starts with a serious man peering into a microscope. He is suddenly confronted by three skinny, fashionable girls wearing three-inch high heels. They strut on the catwalk as shots of lipstick and make-up are interspersed with the chemical processes that made them.



I saw the video last week and immediately knew it was going to go down like a tonne of bricks. By the start of this week, the blogs had gotten hold of it and were already tearing it to pieces. Time Magazine’s science blog called it “breathtaking sexist” in a post yesterday. Wired called the girls depicted in the video “lab barbies”. Amanda Cook noted, “I know no researcher who wears lipstick and heels at work.” Salon.com quipped, “Girls would love science, if it was more like Katy Perry.”

The Commission has responded to the internet outrage by pulling the video, just days after it was uploaded. The Commission’s research spokesman acknowledged that the video had become a distraction from the campaign’s message. But the damage has been done, the video was mirrored on YouTube and is still circulating around the internets prompting both anger and mockery.

It’s almost unbelievable that in the planning process for this video nobody stepped in to point out that the images might be interpreted badly by many female scientists, particularly after the ‘racist video’ controversy the EU was embroiled in earlier this year.

That €150,000 promotional video, done in March for the Commission’s enlargement department, depicted a white woman dressed in the EU’s colours fighting off dark-skinned assassins meant to represent China, Africa and the Middle East. She is only able to defeat them when joined by the other ‘stars’ on the EU flag.


The point of the video, which was meant for distribution in the Balkan and Eastern European candidate countries, was that strength comes through unity and that the EU offers protection from large powers. But the fact that all of these enemies were non-white men threatening a woman and practicing oriental fighting arts seemed to evoke by-gone themes of colonialism and ‘white slavery’.

Good intentions

Both of the videos had legitimate messages to send, but were executed in a shockingly tone-deaf way. The Commission’s science campaign is specifically targeted at teenage girls. They wanted to depict science as something fun, not something just for boring old men in lab coats.

But the consultancy which made the video was apparently incapable of grasping the fact that high heels, lipstick and fashion are not the only things teenage girls might consider ‘fun’. They were also apparently tone-deaf to the association many women have between high heels and cosmetics and female subjugation.

Similarly, the idea that a small European country has more clout in the world when it unites with its neighbours in a strong union is spot on. The image of a single person being protected from aggressors by her EU partners was a good metaphor for that. But when all the aggressors are dark skinned racial caricatures practicing exotic martial arts, the video looks like it’s about something else entirely.

All they had to do was add an ‘Uncle Sam’ character or a ‘Vladimir Putin’ to the mix and it would have been fine. The idea that the United States and Russia were not included in this list of foreign powers who might seek to take advantage of weak European states is pretty ridiculous, and overtly racist. As this video was being devised, did nobody in the room think to point that out?

The question I have is, when do these creative processes spin out of control? When does a good idea turn into a PR disaster? Is the problem in the planning stage? Are the people coming up with the script for these videos just all white men who don’t understand the implications of what they’re putting out there? Or is the original good idea later misinterpreted by clueless directors? Perhaps these are both cases of artistic license taken during the production process? 

Lipstick lab technicians

Looking at the completed product for this ‘Science: it’s a Girl Thing’ video, it’s hard to see how anyone could not see that it would cause offense. But to be fair, one could ask the question, should it cause offense? Is there something inherently demeaning or ‘unserious’ about makeup and high heels?

One could argue that it is perhaps sexist in itself to automatically associate makeup and high heels with something ‘unserious’, and to believe that those things couldn’t possibly be compatible with a serious subject like Science. Contrary to many of the internet comments that have been circulating about this video, it does actually depict the girls doing some science work (not just strutting on a catwalk as some have claimed).

Isn’t the very suggestion that the women in the video should have to ‘dress like men’ in order to be taken seriously in a laboratory exactly what the campaign is trying to fight against? Shouldn’t women be able to be ‘girly’ and be scientists at the same time? Why is it ok for women to dress and behave in this way in a shampoo commercial but not in a science video?

That being said, I highly doubt that the makers of this video were trying to deliver an intellectual critique of the themes of second-wave feminism. There could have been a way to integrate themes of fashion and femininity with themes of scientific work, but this video is so ham-handed that it could never really do anything but offend.

Have we been set up?

But maybe its purpose all along was to offend. I have a sneaking suspicion that the consultancy may have made this just offensive enough to get attention but not so offensive as to get the Commission into serious trouble. The plan all along may have been to put the video up, let a critical mass of offense build up and then take it down, adding more grist to the story and more coverage.

The 'Science: it's a girl thing'campaign has received enormous attention from all this, certainly far more than your average EU campaign receives (usually almost none). Was this just a viral marketing campaign? Am I just a pawn in the game by writing this blog entry?

Perhaps I'm giving the Commission more credit than it deserves here. But if this is the case, what a clever move by the communications agency. They're either geniuses over there or complete idiots. But hey, they just got me to write two pages on a women in science campaign I would have otherwise not looked twice at, so either way something's worked here.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

Having worked on governmental marketing campaigns in the UK for the last decade, I genuinely cannot believe that the Commission and / or Agency would deliberately create something that offensive on purpose with the aim of generating 'talkability', this type of work tends to end up being massively risk-averse like that.

I suspect this was all signed off by a group of people who don't really understand teenagers, and who didn't bother to do any real research with teenage girls and based an entire strategy around stereotypes. It's shockingly bad (although not as bad as that enlargement one...I seriously can't believe that one - although that's probably just a sign of my Anglo-Saxon worldview)