When the team behind the European Union's Science: It's a girl thing campaign designed a concept to entice teenage girls to pursue careers in science, they promoted it via their website. Then they promoted it with a video. Then they quickly pulled the video after it sparked an international storm of criticism, including being labelled "breathtakingly sexist" by TIME.
The video in question, which depicts images of three young women in shirt skirts and stilettos being gawked at by a lab coat-donning young man, transposed with images of makeup powders and lipstick, was meant to appeal to girls between the ages of 13 and 17, reports TIME.
" … females now account for 45 per cent of all PhDs earned in Europe, but barely one-third of science researchers," says the story.
But their strategy was flawed, says Tom Megginson, creative director at Acart Communications in Ottawa. He points out that the EU's objective — to lure girls into the field of science — is great, but he feels they made the wrong choice in choosing to sexualize science and to play with harmful, cultural stereotypes rather than just play up the fact that science is cool.
"We would have shot that down — that never would have been seen by the client," says Megginson, who has worked on many government campaigns. "Governments are held to a higher standard by society, so government advertising should never be part of the problem, it should be part of the solution."
He says he might have designed a campaign that focused on women who have enjoyed success in the science world, as well as the many interesting things science can do.
"Science is really fascinating and it is what our world is all about," he says. "So attracting more girls into science isn't about saying come into the field because it's about being sexy and lipstick and shaking your booty. Get into science because you can change the world. You can have a part in actually changing the very fabric of our existence."
And while he acknowledges that wearing makeup and sparkly clothing doesn't — or shouldn't — preclude a girl from pursuing any subject, he doesn't feel it should be the focus off this particular campaign.
"If a girl wants to dress up and wear makeup , that's totally cool," he says. "But that's up to her. And using the sexualisation of girls and their insecurities about their appearance, is not the kind of Machiavellian advertising strategy I would support."
Though the campaign is not a complete loss, he says. The goal itself is good and the fact that the video went viral means many people are now having a conversation around the need to "increase the ratio of women scientists, as well as the superficial and highly sexualized female stereotypes that are a barrier to that goal."