It’s been a couple of weeks since I spotted the first poster advertising the Axe – Apollo competition in London. Yes, I am talking about that competition that promises to give 22 people from the whole world an opportunity to join a suborbital flight on XCOR’s Lynx space plane.
As everyone in the space community, I had already heard about this project, advocated in the US by Buzz Aldrin himself. But as a lifelong motion sickness sufferer, I have to admit that I wasn’t tempted at all to compete for the opportunity to join this sub-orbital roller coaster. After seeing the poster, I just though to myself: “Is this really how they are advertising the ‘next big thing’ of the 21st century?”
For those who haven’t seen it yet, let me describe the poster briefly: an obviously attractive, scantily clad, young woman is cuddling up to a man (supposedly) dressed in a spacesuit. The text below says: “Leave a man, come back a hero!” No need to say, that such image represents the purest form of an ultimate sexual stereotype and aims at the lowest common denominator that should attract people (mostly men) to the competition (Yes, silly hot airheads would love you – is that really all commercial space flight is good for?)
Disappointed a bit by the low level of creative effort Axe marketers (member of the Unilever family) invested into that campaign, I happily forgot about it. It was only earlier this week, when I was reminded of this silly commercial again – by Space Safety Magazine’s managing editor Merryl Azriel who pointed out a blog of a fellow London-based Space journalist Kate Arkless Gray (aka SpaceKate).
Kate (obviously not being a motion sickness sufferer) had joined the competition at the first occasion, only to become extremely disappointed after uncovering the whole promotional campaign. It is not only the above described poster, there is a similar TV spot too, and plenty of promotional materials available online.
In her blog, Kate condemns the way the campaign not only discourages female participants, but is also very disrespectful to all the women who successfully took part in various space missions, some of them even serving as ISS commanders. By depicting women as decorative trophies and men as the heroes doing courageous stuff, the commercial is bringing us back to the 1950’s type of thinking.
But since then, we have moved forward a bit, haven’t we? So far, 56 women have flown to space. And clearly, they had to fight hard for their opportunities. After the first woman in history, Russian Valentina Thereskhova, flew to space in 1963, it took full 19 years for her successor Svetlana Savitskaya to get the chance. First American astronaut Sally Ride flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger two years later.
SpaceKate also criticizes the competition for reinforcing many unhealthy gender stereotypes, for example that science and engineering belong solely in the realm of men. Being obviously very passionate about the topic, she reached out to NASA spokes people to gauge their opinion. Rebecca Keiser, NASA representative to the White House Council on Women and Girls commented: “Even today in 2013, many images of women (and stereotypes of men) in the media, show that we still have a lot of work to do regarding the role of women and their importance to fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics),” she said. “We need to do as much as we can to project a much more realistic and positive image of women, as well as encourage more girls to enter into STEM fields. We are working hard at NASA on this effort and we hope to do even more.”
According to SpaceKate, press representatives of the Axe-Apollo project in the UK were genuinely surprised that the campaign might be perceived as sexist and reassured that women are more than welcome to join.
Some people commenting on SpaceKate’s blog suggested that Axe, being a predominantly male brand, has the right to advertise the competition, and the related new Apollo product, however they wish to. Nevertheless, the TV commercial itself was further criticized by a blogger at Forbes for being not only sexist, but basically not clear and understandable. What do they really advertise? Is it the cosmetics brand? But we haven’t seen it in the whole TV spot…. Is it the competition? Who can enter it then?
One of the first people commenting on SpaceKate’s blog was Space Safety Magazine’s Carmen Victoria Felix, who shared some rather shocking revelations about the rules of the competition in her home country Mexico. Targeting altogether 60 countries, the campaign obviously allows local organizers a certain level of independence. Some of these countries, including Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Kuwait, Ukraine, and United Arab Emirates chose to ban women from participating completely.
The controversy is building up and one can only assume that the publicity is far from what Unilever wished for when purchasing those suborbital flight tickets for the competition winners. In the meantime, the company has announced that they are communicating with local marketers in those countries prohibiting female participation and will require them to adjust the rules.
Let’s hope the girls watching these adverts who happen to dream about going to space and a career in science at the same time won’t be discouraged by the commercials’ narrative. And prehaps by their male classmates, parents, or teachers telling them that space is only for real men. It would be sad if a competition that presents such a unique opportunity for science and space outreach would only turn into a ultimate force reinforcing unhealthy cultural stereotypes. And it doesn’t really matter that it is Unilever paying for that.
The article was written for the Space Safety Magazine