Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Marketing Double Standard

In advertising, much like in sitcoms, it's not uncommon for men to be portrayed as bumbling, useless figures while women are the down-to-earth, intelligent beings who make all the right decisions and often have to clean up whatever mess the man in their life has made. There's an entire series on Youtube called Misandry In The Media that shines a spotlight on commercials featuring stupid, hapless, perverted, irritating male characters and the women who have to put up with them.

Even though commercials for gaming don't fall back on the same sexist portrayals of men as often as other products do, it does occasionally still crop up. Last year, I mentioned how mind-boggling it was that Ninja Theory used male genital mutilation to advertise Heavenly Sword at E3 2006 (in the appropriately-named "Groin" trailer) in a way that no game developer would ever dream of doing with women:

Over the last couple of weeks, the double standard has cropped up again. The Xbox One has given us a couple of very clear examples of how acceptable it is to mistreat men while being unacceptable to use negative portrayals of women.

It started with a light-hearted letter on the Xbox website, supposedly for people to customise and send to their significant others to persuade them to buy an Xbox One. It's only available in the US, so I haven't been able to view the letter itself, but I believe it can be viewed here if you're in the US and want to check it out. For anyone who can't, here's a screenshot:

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Immediately, this letter faced a backlash on Twitter and from journalists, who believed that the letter pandered to stereotypical viewpoints about women; lines like "you'd rather knit than watch me slay zombies" and "did I mention how beautiful you are" indicate that this is supposedly a man speaking to a woman.

... Except it doesn't. The letter uses completely gender-neutral terms and any words or phrases with green text can be customised with different ones. "Beautiful", for example, can be changed to "handsome" instead. Both the sender and the recipient can be either male or female, in other words, so it's astounding that so many journalists reporting on the letter -- some of whom even acknowledge that the letter is customisable, making their outrage all the more baffling -- immediately believe that this is a man sending the letter to his female partner when it could be addressed to either sex, from someone of either sex:
"What was intended to be a cute, customizable form meant for men to convince their girlfriends to buy XBox One consoles instead brought Internet ire to Microsoft."
- Michael Thomas, Digital Journal - "'Sexist' Xbox One ad forces Microsoft to rewrite"
"Microsoft put together an online letter template to help men ask their significant others for Xbox One consoles — either as a holiday gift or requesting permission to get the system for the household.
The ad tries to be cute with the thinking an 'explanation (and a little sucking up)' will get the woman to budge. But some see the effort as sexist and enforcing gender stereotypes."
- Samantha Murphy Kelly, Mashable - "Microsoft's 'Sexist' Xbox One Ad Stirs Controversy"
"Microsoft changed the default language Wednesday on a fill-in-the-blanks form on an Xbox website, which appears to give men talking points to sell women on the merits of the new Xbox One videogame console."
- Shira Ovide, Ian Sherr & Evelyn M. Rusli, Wall Street Journal - "Xbox Changes Wording of ‘Hey Honey’ Letter After Sexism Complaints"
"Microsoft has created the most insanely sexist ad for the Xbox One after presumably binge-watching Mad Men and missing the point entirely.
Or at least that's the only explanation I can come up with for its comically regressive US web-based ad for Xbox One that assumes its audience is full of males attached to sneering harpies who like to knit, love fitness, and hate video games.
The ad in question suggests that men want an Xbox One, but their female significant other will chide them for it. To counter this oppressive, domestic force, Microsoft has written a letter to your stereotypical shrew explaining the benefits of Xbox One to women who never lived past 1912."
- Jeffrey Matulef, Eurogamer - "Microsoft slammed for sexist Xbox One ad"
"“Man,” you may have said recently, “I wish my girlfriend/wife/mistress would let me buy one of those cool new Xbox One consoles.” “If only there was someone who could talk to her about it for me,” you may have exclaimed! Well good news, gamer guy: Microsoft has a shamelessly sexist open letter you can email to the non-gaming lady in your life."

Some articles are less reactionary than others but it's hard to believe so many of them take the stance of "it's sexist against women". As marketing campaigns go, I can't see it being particularly successful -- is the customisable letter going to persuade anyone any better than a list of the Xbox One's features would? -- and, honestly, the idea of poking fun at a partner not being interested in gaming is a silly way to sell a games console. Having said that, Microsoft made an effort to make the letter gender-neutral. There's nothing to say that it's not a female gamer sending this to her male partner who would "rather knit than watch me slay zombies" (which I think is too over-the-top to be taken seriously anyway). So it's an example of dumb advertising but Microsoft at least took steps to avoid offending people, something they made clear when they apologised and changed the letter.

If only the same could be said for their "His & Hers" Xbox One commercial:

In this video, a man is watching sports on the Xbox One. His girlfriend enters the room, uses the Kinect's voice commands to switch to Dead Rising 3, to the man's protests, and then orders him to get her a beer. He complies but finds that they're out of beer. His girlfriend orders him to go to the store. He does so. The "joke" is that the girlfriend can command her boyfriend as easily as she can with the Xbox One's voice recognition.

Basically, Microsoft have fallen back on the same sitcom stereotypes that I mentioned at the start of the blog; a useless doormat of a boyfriend with the same "yes dear" attitude that sitcom husbands typically have when confronted by their by-the-numbers "strong, independent" wife. However, and I can't quite believe I'm writing this, the advert has been praised for subverting stereotypes.

Before I get into that, let's read some of the Youtube comments from that particular video, shall we?

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I apologise for that picture being so large that it won't fit on the blog unless resized but basically, the vast majority of comments on that video imply that the only people who dislike the video are stupid, illiterate, fat, ugly, whiny, sexists, virgins, "butthurt", "fucksticks" and/or "dudebros".

Man, we're so lucky that gaming is a boy's club, aren't we? Who knows what kind of abusive, sexist things would be said about men if it wasn't!

Basically, their interpretation is that the commercial subverts stereotypes because it's a woman telling a man to get back in the kitchen and get her something, in the same way that women face online abuse by people who tell them to "get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich".

I'm sure that was the intention, just as I'm sure the commercial was intended to subvert stereotypes. It doesn't work, in as much as the man in this particular relationship is as stereotypical as the majority of men in both sitcoms and advertising but, as is always the case, the woman's portrayal is the important one. The man is irrelevant.

So let's say that by having a woman tell a man to get back in the kitchen, the commercial attempted to subvert stereotypes. Do Microsoft truly think that making misandric jokes about men is somehow making a point or striking a blow against sexism towards women? Or are they just running the risk of normalising "get back in the kitchen" jokes for the sake of a very petty commercial? By using sexist advertising to market their product, feminist critics of the games industry have lost what little weight the "women are often faced with 'get back in the kitchen' jokes while playing online" argument had; I know for a fact that, when faced with that argument in the future, I'm going to respond with, "so what? Microsoft used that same 'joke' against men to help sell the Xbox One". It's Heavenly Sword all over again. When anyone points to the website Fat, Ugly or Slutty for examples of the ways women are mistreated online, there's an entire comments section of a Youtube video we can point to for examples of men being described using phrases like "fat little man-dodos", "14-year-old virgins" and "man tears". The commercial hasn't made any strides towards equality.

For all the misandric comments about "man tears", there are actually very few people criticising the commercial, leading me to suspect that the comments section of the video is heavily-moderated. However, I did manage to find this comment thread:

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In this particular comments thread, one feminist Youtuber says that they are offended by the commercial because it doesn't promote gender equality. Others tell them that they are not a feminist.

I think Julie De Santos hits the nail on the head here, before being quickly dismissed by people claiming she "misses the point". My criticism of this commercial and the Youtube comments honestly has nothing to do with the content but rather the reactions to it; the blatant double standard where an explicitly misandric advertisement is praised while an implicitly misogynistic (if that) letter promoting the Xbox One is decried. Microsoft gave an apology for one but not the other and I'm sure nobody is guessing which one. Where's the consistency? Where's the backlash against the "His & Hers" Xbox One commercial and the comments to it?

The only article that I could find even mentioning the "His & Hers" advertisement was from Gameranx, in a piece that praised the commercial while pointing out how the makers of the customisable letter were guilty of "not getting it".
"[On the customisable letter] However, despite the lack of gender specific pronouns, many have noticed that the structure still comes off as a stereotype: the ole "gotta ask the ball and chain" trope that permeates heteronormal relationships. It's almost as if the initial ad was rejected and key phrases switched in the interest of not coming off as sexist. A noble pursuit, to be sure, but one rather clumsily executed in this case.
This attempt at gender neutrality seems to follow a new strategy for Microsoft, who recently released a commercial that adequately challenged some of the general preconceived notions about the target audience for the Xbox One. Entitled "His and Hers," the following ad features a woman gamer who kicks her boyfriend off the couch while he's watching sports to play a video game.
It almost boggles the mind how a company that came up with the advertisement above could also be responsible for the former ad copy. But gotta give 'em props for trying."
- Ian Miles Cheong, Gameranx - "Is This Xbox One Ad Sexist?"

Little wonder that this particular article was written by Gameranx editor-in-chief, Ian Miles Cheong; someone who, back during the #1ReasonWhy movement, posted a link on Twitter to his Tumblr, featuring a very misandric poem by Carol Diehl, which suggested everything from men being unable to know what it's like to be raped to being oblivious to the feeling of having the appearance of their private parts mocked.

On occasion, I've defended game journalists for the lack of coverage about certain issues if I feel like they're not significant enough to be covered but this isn't like a few sexist comments on an obscure Facebook page that aren't a big enough issue for journalists to cover. This is an advertisement for a major next-gen console. I would expect some coverage for it beyond Ian Miles Cheong's brief praise. It isn't like I think this issue deserves special treatment but the fact is that a lot less significant gender issues in gaming have been given a lot more coverage because, typically, they involved women as the victims and not men.

Take Carolyn Petit as an example. Back when the backlash occurred over the 9.0 score she awarded to Grand Theft Auto V, some people started up a petition on called "Gamespot Staff: Fire Carolyn Petit". That particular petition was taken down incredibly quickly and a new one started up that, as of this writing, has a grand total of 46 signatures (and several people only signed it to comment on how stupid it was). It's a far cry from the 22559 comments currently on Gamespot's review of Grand Theft Auto V and not what I'd call indicative of any kind of sexism in the gaming community.

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So why is it that this particular non-issue was covered by sites such as MCV UK, Las Vegas Guardian ExpressChaos Hour and System Wars Magazine? A couple of months ago, I criticised a video on Youtube by Jamin Warren and PBS Game/Show that compared Anita Sarkeesian to Rosa Parks. In that particular video, Warren brought up the petition as a reason why "we need Anita Sarkeesian's feminism". While these aren't sites or videos I regularly read people discussing online, they still covered the subject. That's more than I can say about this.

Likewise, something I'm fairly sure I've never written about is the "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" game that sprang up around the time of her Kickstarter campaign. Some of you may have heard about it, since it's one of the subjects constantly brought up whenever the abuse Anita suffered is mentioned. It's been talked and written about by Anita herself. Basically, it was a game hosted on where the player clicked on a photograph of Anita repeatedly until her face became more and more bruised. Given that it's had such a long-lasting legacy when the subject of sexism in the gaming community comes up, you wouldn't think it was made by just one person and taken down from Newgrounds within a day. Does it make the motive or feelings behind it any less despicable? No. Is it undeserving of the reputation it received? Yes. I'm not going to link to any sites because I don't particularly want to give them traffic but just type "Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian" into a search engine and you'll find articles on it by the Huffington Post, New Statesmen, Destructoid and more.

Then there's an article from The Wire, titled "Gamers Can't Handle the New Female Head at Xbox" by Rebecca Greenfield. Greenfield's justification for this claim? A handful of comments from gamers, several of which aren't even sexist.

So again, I don't think the "His & Hers" commercial deserves special treatment. However, because of the blatant double standard when it comes to male portrayals, it isn't receiving even basic treatment. Misandric marketing combined with single-minded journalism focused only on politically-correct articles leaves us with a sexist commercial I'll be surprised if anyone covers.

The odd thing is that the "His & Hers" video posted above was actually a mirror. The one on Xbox's Youtube channel has more views, more comments and yet a lot less sexism in the comments section. I've no idea how that worked out the way it did.

Finally, although I know that engaging with Youtube commenters is a fool's errand no matter what, there is one from the comments section above that I'd like to mention, from a Youtuber called Nimbose:
"What's funny is that some of the guys who hate this commercial are probably those who tell women 'shut up and get me a sandwich' on a daily basis.
Hmn.  Looks like someone can't take what they dish out."
That final line, about not being able to take what they dish out, is the part I'm interested in. Using that same logic, does that mean it's now open-season on making "get back in the kitchen" jokes, since Microsoft have done it with the Xbox One? It's been "dished out" towards men ... so presumably, male gamers can "dish it out" towards women as they please from now on and female gamers won't be allowed to complain because Microsoft already insulted men in the same way? Or at least any complaints will be met with, "well, it looks like some people can't take what they dish out".

I'm guessing that won't happen.

Abusive online comments towards women aren't going to end because a console manufacturer created an advert featuring an insulting portrayal of men. If anything, it'll just encourage more abusive comments and, as long as the "His & Hers" advert goes uncriticised, all the misandric advertising has done is remove any way of defending against the "get back in the kitchen" comments! If nobody steps up to criticise the advert that shows men getting back in the kitchen funny, why would anyone step up to criticise the "get back in the kitchen" jokes aimed at women that the online trolls find funny? If you're willing to promote the sexist advertisting double standard -- criticising the letter, not criticising the commercial -- why would anyone bother to help women?

Simply put, if nobody criticises the "His & Hers" advertisement in the same way they did the customisable letter ... I don't know how gaming can ever be referred to as "a boy's club" with a straight face and it's clear why blogs like this one need to exist.