Rush Limbaugh: What Advertising Companies Can Learn From Rush

Rush Limbaugh, the king of right-wing radio, is also the master of placing himself squarely in the middle of public debate. My guess is that he was starting to see himself slip out of the national dialogue, but like the Kardashians, he knows exactly how to get himself front and center again. 

This time he called student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” for publicly protesting the fact that her school’s heath insurance policy does not cover her contraception, and his name is now again on the tongue of every news outlet in the nation. 

What isn’t being scrutinized in this endless coverage, however, is how much money the companies which posture against sexism by pulling their ads from a sexist show — or which proudly proclaim that they never would have advertised on such a show in the first place —  are wasting creating their own sexist ads, because advertising firms lack women in their upper ranks, especially as creative directors.

Because of this dearth of female voices, companies are spending billions creating ads that can be nearly as offensive or clueless as Limbaugh’s remarks. Marketing companies need to catch on. Having more women’s voices higher in the ranks would be better for both the advertising companies and those they serve.

For example, ads with babies and animals were much more popular with consumers this Super Bowl, but that didn’t stop advertisers from using naked women.  According to the USA Today/Facebook ad meter, Go Daddy’s female-objectifying “Cloud” commercial was ranked the lowest at 56, followed by its equally offensive “Paint” commercial at 53. That’s a seven million dollar mistake.

Number 1 on the ad meter was Doritos’ baby in a sling. According to Kat Gordon, founder of Maternal Instinct, a marketing agency focused on helping brands connect with the mom market and the force behind the 3 percent Conference — a first ever event for female creative directors — women make up only 3 percent of all creative directors in advertising agencies.

There are over 8 million women-owned businesses in the United States, with, says the U.S. Census Bureau, women overseeing over 80 percent of consumer spending in the US. We oversee the majority of the spending —  about $5 trillion dollars annually — on the goods being advertised, but we are not represented in the creation process.
This is particularly confounding when we see that the numbers show that women make for good business. According to a White House Project Report, “Fortune 500 companies with high percentages of women officers experienced, on average, a 35.1 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher total return to shareholders than did those with low percentages of women corporate officers.”

Facebook, which has the loudest champion for women in leadership, Sheryl Sandberg, as its COO, has harnessed the power of women. She showed advertisers how to reach its majority of female users and helped grow Facebook from 70 million users and almost no revenue to 600 million users and $3.7 billion in revenue since her arrival.

Another example of the power of women in business is the Best Buy’s Women’s Leadership Forum (WOLF), a program that brings together female customers and female employees at all levels in the organization. WOLF created an increase in revenue from female customers of 11 percent, or $4.4 billion in less than five years.    

Yet, surveys show more than 90 percent of women — women who, incidentally, spend the money — think that advertisers do not understand them.  Considering that $171 billion was spent on advertising in 2011, this is a number that companies should be alarmed about.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that women are inherently more noble than men when it comes to advertising. If 97 percent of creative directors were female you’d probably see David Beckham not just selling underwear (spanking Go Daddy with a rank of 26 on USA Today’s ad meter) but naked in bed, covering himself in Birkin bags to lure Victoria away from her tough job for a romp in the bedroom.  

But the point isn’t about gaining a majority, it’s that smart businesses see the value of having more gender balance in decision-making positions.   Then maybe we would see fewer ads that seem just as sexist as Mr. Limbaugh himself.

This column first appeared on the Huffington Post