Boorish pitches won’t sell IT to women

I got a condom in the mail the other day. It came with an advertisement for some sort of year 2000 service. “Are there leaks in your year 2000 readiness plan?” it asked. There was also a full-color photo of a condom filled with a liquid of unknown origin and – you guessed it – leaking. My initial response: “Eeeeuw!”

I found myself picking up the page gingerly, by the tip of the corner, vaguely worried about getting cooties or something worse as I maneuvered it toward the round file.

Not only was this in revoltingly bad taste, it wasn’t even an apt analogy. It was like one of those dirty jokes that’s not funny.

Y2K has nothing to do with leaks. Better to send out little whisk brooms (“Is your staff sweeping Y2K problems under the rug?”) or boxes of snow packed in dry ice (“Beware the snowballing effect of Y2K”) or “Ghostbuster” backpacks (“Will Y2K come back to haunt you in court?”).

But that wouldn’t be sexy.

Well, hello! Neither is the condom. Sex may sell products. Plumbing doesn’t.

And selling is the point, isn’t it? I asked a programmer named Mary Jane what she thought about the ad. “Disgusting!” she said. “I would avoid buying anything from a company that clearly had such bad judgment.”

“This is crazy,” said Melanie, a software engineer. (Last names have been omitted at the women’s request). “Ads should focus on the problem at hand.”

While we’re on the topic of selling with sex, has anybody seen the nude man in the handheld personal organizer ad? That’s funny, neither have I.

One company caused quite a commotion in February when it splashed three different poses of a naked woman on billboards. The message was supposed to be that the little handheld model was as “simply elegant” as the big naked model.

Double standard

The pitch was no bargain to begin with, but at least the company could have thrown in some nice equal-opportunity exploitation.

There were male models in other ads, you see, and you don’t have to be a marketing genius to realize those billboards were crying out for something “simply rugged.” Alas, the men were fully clothed.

But not to worry, a company spokesperson said during the brouhaha over the ads. A male nude was “on the agenda.”

Must be a long agenda because we’re still waiting.

Shelly, a software engineer, said it’s simple: vendors believe the people buying the products are men.

“I think a lot of people associate all things computer-related with men, and to some extent, geeky men,” she said. “That explains the bathroom humour and beautiful naked women. You can almost visualize the [movie] cast of Revenge of the Nerds staring in awe at the naked woman and giggling about the condoms.”

She notes, however, that her male colleagues aren’t too happy when the shoe is on – or off – the other foot, citing a recent ad depicting the statue of an anatomically challenged man with the wince-inducing question, “Have you lost your dongle?”

“I found that ad way more amusing than my male co-workers,” she said.

Which brings me to another ad. The headline: “Women Find Shopping for a Bathing Suit Almost as Stressful as Y2K.”

It seems that 50 per cent of American women polled say the Y2K problem is causing them stress, while 45 per cent say buying a bathing suit is stressful. For men, the stress levels were a relatively low 36 per cent for Y2K and a preeningly self-satisfied 5 per cent for the swimsuit.

And the point here is…?

Are we saying that the little ladies are silly geese to worry about Y2K? That women are smart to worry about Y2K but dumb to worry about bathing suits? That women are just too darn fat? That men are smarter? Dumber? In better shape? Better shoppers? Oblivious?

None of the above. The point of the survey was to segue into this: “While we can’t make bathing suit shopping a breeze, we can help ease people’s anxiety about keeping their computer information safe from Y2K.”

Am I the only one who thinks this leap is less than intuitive and more than gratuitous?

Offensive marketing

“I find it a put-down for women,” said Diana, a college IT major.

“I think what offended me was that the advertisers believe women [are] so brainless and shallow that we can’t separate business decisions from how we feel about our thighs,” Shelly said. “Or maybe that they had to dumb down the Y2K issue and compare it to something they feel all women can identify with.”

(By the way, I don’t know why men aren’t stressed about Y2K, but the bathing suits are easy. Shopping stress is directly proportional to the ratio of skin to fabric. Try on a half-dozen Speedo racing suits, boys, and watch your stress levels spike.)

Granted, pitchsters have to pitch, and it’s hard to come up with something fresh. But boorish pitches – especially those built around moronic cheap shots about sex and gender – are off-putting and will be counterproductive in an IT world increasingly populated by women.

It’s nice to see ads with a spark of wit, but if you can’t manage that, please, just give us the pitch and keep the condoms.

Melymuka, the IT management feature writer for Computerworld in Framingham, Mass., can be found at