High-tech women fight sex-driven ads

A prominent women's high-tech networking group makes a mission of embarrassing software and Net companies that use cheap come-ons in their ad campaigns.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Sex sells, but don't tell that to Sylvia Paull.

Paull is director of a prominent women's high-tech networking group, GraceNet, that has made a mission of embarrassing software and Internet industry companies that use cheap come-ons in their advertising campaigns. For the past six months, Paull and GraceNet's nearly 1,200 members have trolled billboards, television and other advertising media for sexually explicit messages that give women in high-tech a bad rap.

"So many ads often portray women as sex objects, and they have nothing to do with the products they're selling," said Paull, who founded GraceNet in 1997.

Using sexually explicit messages to sell products is hardly new, and these companies aren't the first to get egg on their faces over marketing campaigns. The "Simply Palm" campaign from Palm Computing two years ago, which featured a naked woman in its attempt to sell its latest handheld device, drew protests from the tech community and spurred the making of several parody sites.

Taking up the renegade role, GraceNet plans to do its part to mitigate the occurrence of sex-tinged advertising in the high-tech industry, which increasingly is run and populated by women.

The nonprofit, named after tech pioneer Grace Hopper, has already pushed three technology companies into yanking suggestive ads after it bestowed on them its DisGraceful Award in Advertising, a monthly dishonor that was first issued last September.

The group's latest target is IBM, which is running an ad promoting its collaborative software, IBM Lotus Mindspan Solutions, in Knowledge Management magazine. The two-page spread shows a man and a woman separately waiting in an airport. The male executive is busy using his laptop, with a caption that reads: "Just learned discounted cash flow techniques with 40 other analysts." The young woman, dressed provocatively, is working on a crossword puzzle. The text under her image says: "Just learned a five-letter word for 'belly button.'"

Paull said the ad received the award because it suggests that women are more suited to looking up synonyms for body parts, while men are more apt to take advantage of IBM's e-learning solutions.

Those already lambasted for poor taste in advertising include digital color company E-color, database company InfoUSA.com and e-mail marketer TargitMail.com. The group's October award went to Lik Sang International, a software company. Its ad depicted a young woman licking her lips, with the caption: "We don't have young Japanese girls on sale right now, but we do ship more than 300 products directly from Hongkong (sic)." The company pulled the ad shortly after the award was announced publicly.

The most satisfying coup for San Francisco-based GraceNet came in January, Paull said, when InfoUSA.com yanked its ad in print publications and fired the marketing team responsible for it following news of receiving the award. InfoUSA.com published an ad showing a dominatrix cracking a whip in an attempt to sell the company's database.

"There are a lot of women in high-tech now, and many ads assume that there aren't," Paull said. "So many woman...are offended by these ads."

Only one of the targets of GraceNet's ire contacted for this story returned phone calls.

Bill Hilliard, chief executive of E-color, which received the group's inaugural award, said the company's ad wasn't meant to offend anyone. "There's a lot of offensive advertising out there," he said. "All this aside, we wish we hadn't gotten notoriety for this."

Senior Marketing Manager Beth Cannon said many women were involved in the approval of the ad. "We didn't think the ad was offensive...It portrayed a woman who desires to express her sexuality and that makes her feel good. If anything, that's empowering," she said.