Toronto Sun

November 29, 1999

Hey Martha, where's the outrage?

Toronto Sun

It was, as we say in the business, a "Hey Martha" moment. As in: "Hey Martha, listen to this," while her partner regales her with a story from the newspaper that is variously shocking, hilarious or simply weird.

Case in point: last week's story about a woman whose breast implants deflected a bullet, saving her life. (On the "Hey Martha" scale of 1-10, that story was an 11.)

Journalists and editors are always looking for "Hey Martha" stories; they get people talking, reading and, best of all, buying newspapers.

A recent television ad for Chrysler fits the bill. In it, one partner slaps the other for allegedly leering at a passerby, when the poor fool is really ogling a shiny new Neon. Quick now: identify the sex of the slapper and the slappee (and no shouting out the answer, those of you who've seen the ad).

I'm sure it's not hard to guess. The slapper must be female, the recipient of the slap male, you reason, because a commercial would never air with the sexes reversed. And you'd be right.

Which is why this ad falls into the "Hey Martha" category.

When I first saw it, my mouth dropped (figuratively, if not literally).

"Excuse me?" I rhetorically asked the television set. "Did I just see that?" And then, the moment of truth. "Hey Martha," (not my husband's real name) I shouted into the next room, "you won't believe this ad I just saw."

Apparently, a lot of other people had the same reaction, and they didn't just holler over to their proverbial "Martha." They got on the horn to Chrysler and groups like MediaWatch to complain about sexism and violence against men.

Now, you may wonder why people get so worked up about ads in the first place.

First off, the Neon commercial arguably violates the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. In the gender portrayal section, the code states that "neither sex should be portrayed as exerting domination over another by means of overt or implied threats, or actual force."

Elsewhere, the code states that ads "shall not appear to exploit, condone or incite violence; nor directly encourage or exhibit indifference to, unlawful or reprehensible behaviour; (nor) demean, denigrate or disparage any identifiable person." The code does not contain the caveat that it's okay if the demeaning or domination is female-on-male.

Secondly, ads reflect social values and attitudes. Ads now feature working moms (too many to list) and divorced dads without custody (one of those muscle creams; you know the one, where the dad has his kid on his shoulders for the entire Santa Claus Parade). It's hard to imagine such ads airing in the 1950s.

The Chrysler ad apparently reflects a social value that it's okay to hit your partner if you're jealous and suspect said partner's amorous attentions are wandering - as long as you're female and your partner is male.

That double standard didn't sit well with many people who saw the ad, and complained. Fortunately, Chrysler listened and edited out the slap. Now the female simply scowls at her partner. Unfortunately, the solution isn't much better, says Irene Benner, executive director of MediaWatch.

"Here's this guy being pushed around by this woman," she observed. "And the ad pits woman against woman."

Even more unfortunate is that all of the people who complained to MediaWatch, and most of those who complained to Chrysler, were men. Where were the women's groups, who can whip up a public statement of outrage as fast as you can say "Budweiser beer babes"? (The National Action Committee on the Status of Women didn't return my call by press time.)

It's not like men haven't returned the favour. Let's remember that we're in the middle of the White Ribbon Campaign, sponsored by "men working to end men's violence against women." So where are the women working to end women's violence against men?

Count me in, as a campaign of one, if you will, though I'm sure many of my female readers are with me in spirit.

Violence is inappropriate no matter what the sex of the perpetrator.

Advertisers, pay attention.

Marianne Meed Ward, a freelance writer with an interest in social and ethical issues, appears Mondays. Her e-mail

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Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.