Red panties ignite Net flap

"Shame on you, John Battelle!" says a GraceNet founder to the Industry Standard publisher, denouncing a "sexist" ad.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published August 22, 2000 6:39PM (EDT)

A model in a slinky black negligee brandishes a pair of red panties in front of her face under this come-on copy:
"She wants: He-can't-keep-his-hands-off-me-red. She's afraid she'll get: You-belong-on-a-street-corner red."

What exactly is this ad selling? Why, a B-to-B Net infrastructure technology service of course, what else?

E-Color, the company that ran this bit o' lingerie titillation in an advertisement appearing in the Aug. 7 issue of the Industry Standard as well as other Net magazines, is the recipient of the first DisGraceful Award in Advertising, a dubious achievement bestowed by the 1,000 members of GraceNet, a Bay Area women's tech group.

"You'd think that IDG's Industry Standard would have more respect for women in the industry and have a policy against ads that degrade women," said Sylvia Paull, a PR consultant and founder of GraceNet. At the group's meeting last week where members voted on the ad for the award (and where I spoke on a panel), Paull took a shot at the Standard's publisher: "Shame on you, John Battelle!"

Sure, it's hard to get your ad noticed among all those bloated business magazines, but does it really take panties to sell technology? The accompanying ad copy, which sort of explains the product -- something to do with making colors more accurate on the Web -- offers this groaner of a double-entendre: "A few shades the wrong direction can have, well, a devastating impact." You sort of have to feel sorry for the people whose job it is to try to make "the market leader building color accuracy into the Internet infrastructure" seem sexy.

Dianne Jacob, a founding member of GraceNet and chairwoman of the DisGraceful Award Committee, thinks the ads will offend both potential customers and employees: "E-Color doesn't get it: Their own customers might be women, so it's not in their best interests to treat women as sex objects while trying to woo them at the same time. Also, if they're trying to create a company image, this ad is certain to offend future women employees, who could infer they won't be taken seriously."

Tell that to the two marketing women whom I talked to at E-Color, or the two women at the ad agency, Leo Burnett Technology Group, who came up with the creative.

"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback on the campaign, including this ad," said Beth Cannon, senior marketing manager for E-Color. Laura Caldie, director of strategic marketing, says they have no plans to stop the ad campaign early because of the criticism: "One negative opinion isn't enough for us to pull an ad," she said.

Of the four ads in the campaign, most feature less raunchy products like armchairs, and not a one features a jockstrap. "None of these ads are using sex to sell," maintains Caldie. She says they're simply intended to show dismayed customers who wanted something just the color that it appeared on the Web, and when the item arrived it was another color. But if you're like me, someone who couldn't possibly fathom the fine distinction between "He-can't-keep-his-hands-off-me red" and "You-belong-on-a-street-corner red" -- the ads just leave you seeing red.

Sure, I've seen worse examples of technology companies whoring hot mamas to stir up CTO interest in their exciting products, including those memorable Simply Porn, I mean Simply Palm ads. But I'd still rather not get my lessons in lingerie and my news about the Net in the pages of the same magazine.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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