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The Three Worst Things About The Pantene Ad Everyone Is Talking About

Everyone’s praising Pantene’s ad against sexist stereotypes. Here’s why they shouldn’t be.

Pantene’s new ad for the Philippines market has gone viral. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg praised it, saying:

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 12.27.02 PM “This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen illustrating how when women and men do the same things, they are seen in completely different ways. Really worth watching. Lean In prize of the day for sure!”

Pantene says of the video:

And now for our feature presentation:

Maybe you’re one of this video’s fans. Here’s why you shouldn’t be:

1) Derivative use of song

I love the song. I’ve loved it since I first heard it when I was 11 or 12 years old. My brother used to play Tears for Fears’ “Songs from the Big Chair” on loop in 1985 and we ended up acquiring the New Wave band’s debut album, which includes this song. You can watch the original video here.

The song was brilliantly redone by Gary Jules, made famous in 2001’s “Donnie Darko.” That version has itself been used everywhere from, as Wikipedia notes, “‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and ‘House,’ as well as in a popular commercial for the critically acclaimed video game Gears of War.” The Gears of War ad was admittedly fantastic. It even won a Silver Lion at Cannes in the “Best Use of Music” category.

The song’s appeal was explained by songwriter Roland Orzabal in an essay published earlier this week. It began:

Mostly I think Pantene’s use of this song is bad because their version is schmaltzy and emotionally manipulative. It’s one thing to be a teenager and enjoy this song because you’re going through teenage menopause. It works for discussions about severe mental illness or the scourge of war. It may have worked if Pantene had gotten to it before Gears of War, even. But now it’s just overdone. Pantene, you were too late and too derivative.

2) The ad itself introduces and reinforces stereotypes

The ad, which begins by showing a gorgeous, sleek woman in stilettos, uses powerful imagery to characterize women with the words “bossy,” “pushy,” “selfish,” “vain” and “show-off.” Males, by contrast, are described as “boss,” “persuasive,” “dedicated,” “neat,” and “smooth.” Then we’re told, “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine. #WhipIt.”

Which labels? The ones that Pantene just introduced and spent 30 seconds on, seared into your mind! So introducing or reminding people of negative stereotypes is totally cool because the big corporation that introduced and reinforced them is against them. Let’s go buy their product. But is it really so valiant for Pantene to use powerful stereotyping imagery so the company can do nothing more than profit off those stereotypes by courageously standing against things we all stand against? I’d rather they were able to make an ad that wasn’t negatively stereotyping men or women.

3) The theme conflicts with the product

I don’t get discouraged about the fact that people judge women by their looks. In fact, I absolutely love being a woman and getting to focus on fashion and beauty. I care a lot about what products I use. I think much of the worry about the sexism of beauty is ridiculous. I’d say being made female is a beautiful gift from God rather than an insurmountable burden for which the only remedy is constant complaining.

Let’s think about this ad, though. It’s filled with skinny, hot, gorgeous women with perfect hair. It suggests that success and happiness are wrapped up in high heels, thin waists and sleek hair. This is all fine and good. I expect beauty products to put out ads that make women feel really lousy unless they spend cash money. I expect this even more from the company that put out Kelly LeBrock’s “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” ads in the 1980s. But don’t micturate on me and tell me it’s raining. Pantene doesn’t get to make money off of negative stereotypes — using stereotypical models — and then tell us they’re feminist “lean-in” heroes.

It’s not the worst ad in the world. It’s good, I guess, that the over-riding message is to suck it up (and, uh, be pretty) when faced with obstacles. But you’ll excuse me for not joining in the praise chorus.

Follow Mollie on Twitter.

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