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DaimlerChrysler Dodges sexism

Getting results with low-budget media activism


Posted January 21, 2004

Ann Simonton long ago learned to ignore pessimists who said one person alone couldn't affect the media culture.

So last month the Santa Cruz media activist told a multinational corporation that it was about to do something really misogynistic. And it listened.

Lingerie Bowl "referees."

DaimlerChrysler had backed an event called the Lingerie Bowl, in which two teams of seven female underwear models in frilly lace and football padding were to duke it out in a nearly naked game during half-time on Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday. For $19.95 you could get it all on pay-per-view, courtesy of Dodge trucks.

Simonton, who runs a mostly volunteer media activist group called Media Watch, e-mailed a couple thousand of her friends, asking them to boycott DaimlerChrylser. Within days, the company withdrew its support from the event.

"The Wall Street Journal said it was public pressure," Simonton said. "I think that was a good strategy on our part, to stress that this was a multinational corporation whose products include Mercedes-Benz."

Ann Simonton

Simonton's letter campaign was blunt: "Women may not purchase Dodge Trucks," she wrote in a letter that went out to her subscribers and feminist e-mail lists, and was posted on media-focused Web sites, including Grade the News, "but they DO buy Minivans, Jeeps, Mercedes-Benz and other Daimler Chrysler automobiles. Or at least they used to!

"I plan to join others in the growing international boycott of all your automobiles until you acknowledge and ACT on the mistake you are making in humiliating females in this manner."

On Dec. 7, she distributed the message, which suggested contacting 13 of the company's top executives. She received only a perfunctory response on Dec. 8, but later the same day the company’s president, Dieter Zetsche, publicly distanced himself from sponsorship of the deal. Dodge representatives also said they would ask the Los Angeles producers of the Lingerie Bowl to tone it down, and put the women in sports bras and boy shorts, with proper head protection. By Dec. 17, the company announced it was withdrawing its support altogether.

It was not only feminists who responded to the call. Conservative groups were also offended, and Chrysler dealers said their customers were starting to complain.

Joe Eberhardt, executive vice president of global sales and marketing for Chrysler Group, acknowledged the power of public pressure when he told CNN at the time that outside attention to the issue was becoming a distraction for the company: "We were hearing from every kind of stakeholder ... It got to the point where I didn't want to open the newspaper anymore."

For Simonton, the Lingerie Bowl exemplifies erosion of respect for women's humanity. "We're always interested in ways in which pornography and sexual violence is put out there as the mainstream," she said. "What we really need to do is talk about effects of images of women who 99 percent of the time are being represented as sexual objects."

Some of Simonton's closest allies, though, said that feminist activists should be very cautious issuing calls for boycott of media companies because they sometimes can send the wrong signal.

"I don't think that it's necessarily within our interest because boycotts validate advertisers' power in a roundabout way," said Jennifer Pozner, founder and director of an activist group called Women in Media & News. "What we should be working toward is the absolutely rock-solid wall between editorial and advertising."

But Pozner stressed that boycotts do work sometimes -- when they target the advertisers themselves, and Media Watch's case against Dodge seemed to be an example of that. The Lingerie Bowl is not really a network show. From its Web site, it looks more like a live, sports-themed, soft-porn video.

Media Watch consists of Simonton, a few other volunteers and interns from local high schools and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The group makes educational films, writes opinion pieces, holds protests and launches letter campaigns critiquing media images of women and ethnic minorities. The group also sponsors spoken-word events for youths to encourage alternative forms of self-expression.

When she's not speaking publicly about her media activist work to colleges and community groups across the country -- now her full-time occupation -- she's picketing businesses such as Larry Flynt's Hustler Club, which opened two years ago in San Francisco. But her trademark act is dressing up as a piece of meat, to dramatize the subhuman image that is often projected upon women in advertising and entertainment.

Ms. Simonton dressed in cuts of meat.

Simonton, 51, used to be a professional model before she turned to media criticism. After protesting with fellow feminist Nikki Craft for several years, Ms. Simonton launched Media Watch in 1984. The group has engaged in innumerable campaigns against media companies and their corporate sponsors. They started out by sending postcard alerts to members. The advent of the Internet boosted the speed and efficiency of their campaigns. She posts her messages to lists belonging to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, Living Without Violence and Exploitation, and other women's groups. Media Watch itself has 3,307 subscribers.

"The reason the Internet is so effective is that people read it, they're interested and they respond," she said. "I just sent them the tools for how to write and to get involved."

Beer companies are the most intransigent, she said. But overall, Media Watch has succeeded about 5% of the time. It's those victories that make the whole endeavor worthwhile, Simonton said.

She has had some great successes.

Reebok, after a Media Watch campaign in the mid-1990s, canceled an ad that used images of women in lingerie to sell tennis shoes by claiming to display the "physics behind the physiques."

DuraSoft stopped using advertising slogans such as "DuraSoft colors can change even the darkest eyes to stunning light colors" to sell contact lenses, an advertising tactic that Media Watch called subtly racist. Stella McCartney, the clothing designer, responded to complaints from the group by withdrawing a series of advertisements depicting barely clothed women apparently being observed from the bushes outside their bedroom windows.

Some of Simonton's boycott accomplices say they want to continue to writing to stop the Lingerie Bowl. A different letter is now circulating protesting the company that is doing the filming, Horizon Productions, Inc.

But Simonton thinks that is a waste of time. There are thousands of companies in Los Angeles making racy films. They are only accountable to their customers, so trying get them to acknowledge women's humanity "could be a waste of time," she said. "You want to go to the people who have something to lose, like a car company."

The American Foundation for AIDS Research also said it would no longer be involved with the event, and said it would no longer accept money as a charity. But soon thereafter another AIDS group, the AIDS ReSearch Alliance, signed up as a replacement.

"It's a pay-per-view event," said Neil Gordon, administrative director for the charity. "Anyone who doesn't want to see it isn't going to see it. It's an opportunity to target an audience that is increasingly at risk for HIV-AIDS, 18-to-35-year-old males and their female partners."

The show also has a new sponsor: an Internet gambling Web site, PartyPoker.com. Mitch Mortaza, president of Horizon said in a statement, "It is refreshing to have a title sponsor that is decisive and does not allow a few radical groups to dictate how they spend their advertising dollars or with whom they partner."

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Affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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