Adland's Feminism Amnesia

26/06/2012 16:28 BST | Updated 26/08/2012 10:12 BST

Today we can relax about sexual equality and the emancipation of women, because all that was sorted out decades ago, right?

Not if we follow the bizarre trajectory of two campaigns launched last week, coincidentally the same week adland recognised its best accomplishments in Cannes.

The first is for FemFresh, a product I didn't know even existed until last week. It is a kind of soap that isn't soap, developed specifically for washing the vagina. It must be good stuff, because it is 'pH-balanced' and contains 'soothing aloe-vera'.

Unfortunately for FemFresh, it launched a campaign for its vaginal washing product on Facebook but seems to have made a cardinal sin - to omit the word 'vagina' completely from the product, and then turning this into an awkward joke in its marketing copy.

"The kindest way to care for your fancy, va jay jay, kitty, nooni, la la, froo froo! Whatever you call it make sure you love it. Femfresh. Expert care for down there" reads the blurb.

The reaction was overwhelmingly, catastrophically negative, with dozens of cross, stunned and often very funny comments littering the timeline. A post on the Wall Blog brought the brewing mess to a fresh audience and the campaign was pulled yesterday (Monday).

Most asked one simple question: why does the marketing of this product infantilise its audience? Why indeed?

Patronised for washing between their legs, women have also had the indignity of a jaw-droppingly inappropriate ad to encourage considering 'science' as a career.

This ad was produced for the European Commission, and seems to consider 'science' in the same way as Derek Zoolander might - with bubbles, pumping house music, strutting around in high heels and a lab coat, and the colour pink. Nothing about pushing the boundaries of human endeavour through experiment, or discovery in a wide variety of disciplines.

So bad is the ad that Victoria Herridge, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, summed-up the ad to the Telegraph: "It is almost beyond parody."

"I find it offensive on two levels, not just the lack of proper representation of what it means to be a scientist but also the single, generic message that it seems to put across."

The popular portrayal of adland lives in the 1960s Madison Avenue, in the much-lauded Mad Men. One of the many pleasures of watching Mad Men is the context - the prejudices and excesses of 1960s America rendered absurd through decades of hindsight spurred by the civil rights movement and the feminist movement in particular.

But perhaps adland itself had not been watching, or perhaps not realised that this kind of context makes Mad Men at heart a satire.

However, brands can learn, and disasters can be turned around.

While the FemFresh campaign has set the brand back, perhaps for good, the EU may have benefitted after all. The reaction from working women scientists prompted action, and the EU has filled a Twitter list of 500 scientists and researchers, and is building a second list.

They have also abandoned the troublesome #sciencegirlthing Twitter hastag, and replaced it with the more respectable #realwomeninscience.

Women in science are suddenly engaged, and this will help build the campaign's credibility in the future, and so this disaster may turn out to be a success after all.