South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
When two of Brazil’s most powerful women, President Dilma Rousseff and supermodel Gisele Bündchen, last month emerged as the figureheads of two opposing sides in a heated debate over sexism in advertising, it did not seem like a fair fight.
After all, Ms Rousseff is ranked third on a Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women compared with number 60 for her celebrity opponent. Yet Ms Bündchen’s camp eventually came out on top in an epic battle that offers some insights into Brazil’s booming advertising world.
The ad, in which the supermodel had advised women that if you write off your husband’s car or max out the limit on his credit card while shopping they should deliver the bad news dressed in lingerie, has sparked a fierce debate over evolving social mores in advertising in a society that elected its first woman president last year.
For some, North American-style political correctness does not translate south of the equator in a country with a reputation for being relaxed about sexuality and the human body. Others counter that this is no excuse for perpetuating harmful stereotypes in the media. For businesses looking to target Brazil’s rising middle classes, the affair offers insights into how to work out the best marketing strategy while avoiding potential faux pas that could bring reputational costs.
“The challenge now for companies in Brazil is to penetrate effectively the new middle class,” says Clinton Carter, director of Frontier Strategy Group, a consulting company. “In any society where you have a growing middle class, you start to see the same thing – more activism on environmental and other issues.”
Brazil’s advertising and marketing industry has become one of the world’s biggest on the back of the country’s remarkable change in demographics over the past decade. Companies in Brazil spend about $16bn a year on advertising, a figure that has grown from $10.9bn in 2007 and is set to rise further with the soccer World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 and the Olympics two years later.
More than 30m Brazilians have risen out of poverty since 2003 to create a new middle class totalling more than 100m people – or more than half of the country’s total population of 190m.
It was against this backdrop that underwear brand Hope chose Ms Bündchen to star in a series of ads with the tagline “You’re Brazilian! Use your charm!” The ads drew a fierce backlash from some quarters, particularly the country’s women’s affairs secretariat, which demanded that Brazil’s advertising self regulator Conar suspend the campaign.
“This should not be treated as a question of morality,” says Lourdes Maria Bandeira, a sociologist with the University of Brasília. “Images of this nature can put women in a vulnerable situation.”
Advertising controversies are not restricted to gender issues. An advertisement for olive oil brand Gallo caused outrage because the tag line said that the “dark” glass used for the bottles to protect its product from sunlight is “the security”. For Brazilians of African extraction, this evoked the stereotype of a security guard.
Last winter, Arezzo, a large footwear retailer, launched “Fur Mania”, a line using real animal skins, declaring it the season’s must-have. The company withdrew the products after being attacked on Twitter.
Jorge Grimberg of Stylesight, a São Paulo-based trend forecasting service, cautions that while Brazil is changing, it will not necessarily mimic another country, but follow its own moral code. He cites the case of a woman, arrested for going topless: “Does it make any sense? Women in Rio use the smallest bikinis all year long, but topless is wrong.”
But Conar dismissed the petition, saying it was precisely because the stereotypes in the ad were so readily identifiable that it was clear the campaign was intended as a humorous caricature of traditional values.
“People have to understand that it was just a joke – a charming joke,” says José Carlos de Salles Neto, president of Grupo M&M, a communications group, of the Gisele campaign.
Academic research is inconclusive about whether Brazil’s advertising industry is more sexist than elsewhere. But some studies have found that sexist stereotypes, such as the endless display of “ideal” women as beautiful and thin, remain prevalent in Brazilian advertising.
“There is still this macho culture in Brazil,” says Alexandra Vilela, who lectures on communication studies at Townson University in the US and is co-author of a recent research paper, “Examination of Gender-role Portrayals in Television Advertising Across Seven Countries”, which compared Brazil with Germany, China, South Korea and other countries. “You need to have a perfect body. I think women are still slaves of this environment and I think it’s imposed by both of them – women and men.”
Indeed, the Gisele debate is not an isolated affair and recent controversies over advertising have not been confined to gender. Other controversial publicity campaigns include olive oil and bank ads that were attacked as racist, and a shoe ad that offended animal rights activists (see box).
As anywhere, some controversy can help a product gain publicity. But government intervention to curb such excesses are unwelcome in a country in which the memory of military dictatorship is still relatively fresh, advertising industry figures contend.
“OK, we need to be politically correct, we need to have guidelines, but we can’t submit to censorship,” says Marcello Queiroz, editorial director at Jornal Propmark, an advertising and marketing magazine.
For companies, such issues represent a complex challenge. Paulo Mesnik, marketing director of Azul Brazilian Airlines, a budget carrier, says the company recently launched a new print and online campaign that emphasises putting the customer first, with the tagline “up there”. The company used real customer testimonials, chosen to ensure each customer segment was represented, regardless of race or gender.
“Inclusive marketing, which some might call political correctness, has more weight these days than it used to in Brazil. It hasn’t reached the level of the US but we’re certainly walking down the same path,” says Mr Mesnik.
The lesson for business is that the rules are changing in Brazil, says Lucas Melo, a shareholder at Box 1824, a consumer marketing and research group. With the rise of social media, companies must be ready to respond promptly to changes in consumer values. Members of the new middle class are becoming better educated and financially empowered, and they are seeking to build their own opinions and express themselves on issues of social importance.
“Our society is evolving very fast just like the economy,” says Mr Melo. “[Companies] have to be as socially and environmentally responsible as they can be.”
Yet for ordinary Brazilian consumers – the consumers who are meant to be influenced by advertising – it is doubtful whether the debate about political correctness even registers. In one central São Paulo shopping centre recently, most display a healthy scepticism about the Gisele-Hope advertisements. One shopper, Cristiane Pereira, says she thought the whole Gisele controversy was “just politics”.
“It was humorous,” she says, dismissing the government’s push to have the campaign suspended as “a weird reaction”.