Go ahead and take a look at this new commercial for Skittles. Tell me: Funny? Gross? Funny-Gross? Maybe … rapey?
Right now, you’re probably gasping at the notion of “rapey-ness” with this ad. Truth be told, I wouldn’t bring it up, except for two things:
• Bob Marshall, a writer for Media Bistro’s “Agency Spy” advertising blog, indirectly called me out on the matter, referencing my earlier Audi criticism in discussing the Skittles ad.
The last time we saw a non-adult steal a kiss in a nationwide campaign was with “Prom,” Audi’s Superbowl spot from earlier this year which some people called “rape-y” and positioned Audi as “promoters of sexual assault.” Will a similar outcry occur at the defense of the candy-toothed victim in this spot? No, of course not, and feel free to get all outraged about that in the comments if that’s how you feel like spending your Wednesday.
Marshall raises a fair question: If it’s rapey for the goose, is it rapey for the gander? The answer: Probably not, at least in this case.
But that doesn’t mean the ad is benign. Like the Audi ad before it, it’s using sex—or the adolescent version of it—to sell a product. When that happens, it’s worth examining what the ad then tells us about sex, and the way that men and women (or their junior versions) interact.
First, let’s go back and look at the Audi ad:
Our meek high schooler somehow becomes sexually powerful once he gets behind the wheel of the right car: You sense the makers of the ad would’ve been just as happy to use old Tom Cruise footage from Magnolia. What makes it rapey? Like I said before: The young woman at the climax of this ad has chosen to be at the prom with someone else; our hero jams his mouth against hers without permission, without introduction—he’s claiming a trophy more than committing an act of passion. And in the end, our hero is still alone—signaling that the young woman still preferred the company of another man. No matter: Our hero is triumphant for having stolen the kiss.
Let’s be honest here: The Skittles ad is goofier and less cock-thrusting than Audi’s creation. It’s still problematic. Let’s look at what happens with this stolen kiss:
• The young woman and her friend view the (apparently plain, shy) young man with a measure of, if not contempt, then pity.
• The young woman kisses the young man only upon seeing the mouthful of Skittles.
• At the end of the kiss, the young man is left without his “teeth”—the young woman walks away, chewing on her mouthful of candy.
Yes, the kiss is stolen—she’s making a huge assumption that he even wants to be kissed—but we don’t see anything but a smile on his face. Given the nature of 30-second storytelling, let’s give the benefit of the doubt here: Not rapey. Understand: We’re inferring this from the story clues, not just the gender reversal.
But there’s that outstanding question: What does the ad tell us about sex, then?
In this case: That women use sex to obtain the things they want from men they don’t even find attractive. This ad’s story isn’t about rape—it’s about another misogynistic trope, the gold-digging slut. (Or the candy-digging slut, if you will.) Once again: Somebody has taken advantage of somebody, using sex as power to claim what they want. And yeah, there’s still something kind of unhealthy about that notion.
A slightly tweaked ad might send an entirely different message. What if, upon seeing the boy smile, the girl smiled back. Cut to the two of them walking through a field of Skittle-colored flowers and rainbows—each choosing to be with each other, each enjoying each other’s quirks, neither robbing the other of anything? You still get the positive message for Skittles, you still get the goofiness, but … you get it in more positive terms.
(We haven’t even discussed the ad’s screaming “FRENCH THE RAINBOW!!!!” tagline, which gave a friend of mine fits. “If it turns out this is airing on regular TV, and I have to explain the punchline to my children . . . ” he muttered darkly, never finishing the threat.)
Final question: Is the commercial worth all this bother?
I don’t need to spend my days deconstructing commercials along gender lines: This is why I watch Netflix. But for most of us—and for our children—this kind of advertising is constantly in the air, both appealing to our perceptions and actively shaping them. So it’s worth asking what we’re absorbing from those messages. I’m not interested in ruining the fun; I just want to make sure the fun doesn’t ruin me.