Picture this: Brooke Shields “Calvinized” in skintight denim. Cindy Crawford ravenously downing a Pepsi outside a rural gas station. Paris Hilton pseudo-splooging on a Bentley with a wily hose before crouching into a chomp of her Carl’s Jr. burger. Picture the countless forgettable wives, mothers, and girlfriends who played the flipped pretty-but-dull coin to these hypersexual icons.
And today: Flo, played by comedian and actor Stephanie Courtney, forty-five, becomes one of the top ad icons of all time. With over five million Facebook likes, Progressive’s zany spokeslady has led to steadily gained market share for the seven years of her red-lipped reign. In a way, Progressive became the progressive marketer, eschewing the predictable and embracing the fact that off-beat, character-driven female brand ambassadors can prove impossibly popular. The latest spate of buoyant spokeswomen (“Flo-tational” devices for heavy times?) include Emily Tarver for Havertys, Katie Rich for Discover and Big Lots, and Laurel Coppock for Toyota.
As Rikki Rogers writes in her 2014 “Meet Your Brand’s New Spokesperson: Funny, Female, and Fully Clothed,”
We’re used to seeing women in ads either as silent and half-clothed or as product mouthpieces made credible by their celebrity… so to make their comedic talent and ability to create an engaging character, rather than their breasts or spouted slogans, the focus of the campaign is quite revolutionary.
“Revolutionary” is a strong word in any context, so the operative term here would be “engaging”—no doubt subjective as ever but also immediately recognizable.
But this trend of dynamic female brand mascots could be taking a few steps back. From Red Robin to Experian to Smirnoff Ice, recent advertising campaigns are displacing the tired Madonna/whore trope for another nearly as reductive, if more covert. Rather than building a distinctive character that resonates across demographics, these new campaigns present a female assuming a predictably informal, jocular, masculine persona; “quirky” is conflated with “bro-y”–especially for products and services to which men would likely gravitate. Sound familiar? Behold: the “Cool Girl” of commercials.
Made legendary by Gillian Flynn’s 2012 Gone Girl speech, “Cool Girl” now pervades an otherwise progressive media shift. Agreeably feminine in appearance but overtly bro-y in speech and action, she plugs not only bottomless steak fries but “Big Game Bellinis”. Lest we witness an era of witless bro-mogenization, this trend should be assessed.
In a recent Experien ad for FICO® scores, a petite blonde lets loose her “credit swagger” before a home mortgage officer named Chuck. “Kaboom!” she declares while pointing to the credit score on her smartphone screen, loudly crossing her kitten heels atop the massive office desk. When approached with additional inquiries, she rejoins, “Chuck, the only other question you need to ask is what else can you do for me.” Busting into a cocky victory dance as though the office lobby exit were an NFL end zone, she is trailed by her meek, mustachioed husband while jock-rock horns blast in the background.
In keeping with such bravado, there is Red Robin spokeswoman Melanie Paxon spitting “booyah” with a brash hand swish over an “endless” basket of steak fries. In another instance of behavioral bro-mage, three women (and one man) heatedly debate who at the table is the biggest Terminator fan while enjoying their Red Robin “Genisys” burgers. For its Fall 2015 “Gameday Betty” series, Smirnoff Ice presents a pleasant brunette amidst a lively suburban house party, schooling us on how to make a “Gameday Shandy” or “Play-off Preparada.” Between mixing beer with vodka and aggressively flaunting her “fanicure,” Betty lashes out at her guests with bro-dawg aplomb (“Hey, Mikey, you want a glass of sangria to catch your tears on account of your team being crushed?”).
The problem isn’t that real women don’t enjoy a good cocktail or steak fry (let alone an endless supply!), but that these “characters” on display ring decidedly one-note.
As Tracy Moore puts it at Jezebel, “Liking beers, hot dogs, sports, partying, and having a general allergy to feelings or Anything Too Serious is not the province of straight men in reality.” It makes sense, in other words, that female consumers would relate to brand ambassadors who shirk the tired accouterments of placid femininity. But to simply replace one trope with another isn’t really progress. Instead of Paris Hilton or Charlotte McKinney, these campaigns supply a Cool Girl for today, lazily created and often tepidly performed, appealing and relatable wholly due to acting like a bro.
Bro-mogenized female branding reminds one of what scholar and cultural critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” in contemporary media—“feminist in its outward appearance (of course you can do anything you want), but sexist in its intent (hold on, girls, only up to a certain point, and not in any way that discomfits men…).” Remind anyone of Flynn’s “Cool Girl” speech? “Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.” In other words, it’s fine to fist-bump with the boys, so long as you keep your figure and don’t complain if they don’t come home from the office on time. As Douglas notes, “Rejecting feminism and buying into enlightened sexism allows young women in particular to be ‘one of the guys.'” Cue the Commercial Cool Girls and their flair for macho hand motions.
Still, it’s possible to “go bro” in an intelligent way—where the punchline moves beyond “this is a woman being like a dude” and into richer comedic territory. It just doesn’t happen that often. “As a commercial actress and copywriter I would love to see more character-driven spokeswomen, not just the tired mom/girlfriend/wife,” says Katie Rich, a Second City alum and Saturday Night Live writer featured in a number of refreshingly funny female-driven ads . At first, Carl’s Jr’s 2015 “Knockout Breakfast” commercial seems to shatter the stereotype, but ultimately just capitulates to another. To shill “sausage, egg, and cheese between sweet French toast,” black-and-white footage of Ronda Rousey sparring in the ring is spliced with a slow-motion, full-color sequence of the UFC Bantamweight Champion facing off with the massive sandwich, devouring it with a passion reminiscent of Paris’s a decade ago. While Rousey’s ringside footage is genuinely fierce, her glare into the camera something to contend with, the ad has to reassure viewers that she “has a sweet side” (just like the sandwich!), with the athlete literally licking her syrupy fingers before breaking into a full-fledged grin. It’s as though she’s saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that threatening,” to an audience, female and male, whose asses she could effortlessly kick.
As members of these audiences, we should be focusing on the advertisers, not too blindly on the women in their employ. I follow Bim Adewunmi of the Guardian, who cautions against critiquing actual women who are labeled Manic Pixies or Cool Girls. Adewunmi concludes,
It’s easy to be scornful of these so-called cool girls, but they are also responding to societal cues, as are we all… [t]he real issue is that we are still being boxed into narrow definitions of what we can be.
As I emphasized in my “Hot Mess Humblebrag” Salon piece (misconstrued by some as a critique of specific famous women, rather than a send-up of patriarchal expectations of these women and the countless like them), it’s a fine balance for women to strike between “being themselves” and performing a version of femininity deemed appealing to our time. Those who succeed refuse to simply “play a bro” to cater to Game Day wet dreams, just as they refuse to perform fellatio on fast food items (rarely a female fantasy).
“How do you know you’re not Cool Girl?” Flynn’s speech inquires near its conclusion. “Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’” Ouch. A jillion dick-loving lady bosses, authors, teachers, letter carriers, editors, cross-country skiers, and West Point Athenas emit a collective sigh.
Flynn’s “Cool Girl” speech nails it in the beginning, but its message is ultimately hopeless for any alpha female who ever wants a man to love and respect her at the same time. This cynicism is only furthered when witnessing spot after spot of brodawg branding: visual media is a (very) small piece of the pie, but its archetypes remain aspirational.