Force-ing the gender issue

Cloudforce last week was an amazing conference to attend. The content was excellent, the event bloody well staged and the focus was on helping attendees understand their products rather than selling them. Hats off to them for creating such a fantastic event and experience.

I’m going to call them on one thing, though. Given they are a company whose mission it is to open up communication, I think a discussion around this would be really productive.

I was narked by the slogan on the free t-shirts. Call me ungrateful if you like, but I wasn’t amused to be handed a black ladies t-shirt with the words

“I’m available”

plastered across the bust.

It may seem like a small detail amidst a global marketing campaign. But details matter because your audience will judge you based on the smallest details picked up intuitively without even realising they’re doing it. Hence why social is gaining such importance in business. Social channels open up a window to these implicit and intuitively understood details; that very human thing of inseparable presentation of content and context. Social in business is risky for exactly the same reason and Salesforce already understand all this. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have a business at all.

I’m assuming the sexual current of humour the t-shirt plays on is clear. I don’t have a problem with sexual humour in itself, but it made me uncomfortable for three reasons and raises three questions.

  • If I (or any of the women I know) were to wear this t-shirt, we’d be ridiculed. Within my social circle, no one would immediately grasp what chatter is: at best they’ll think I’m being naive and at worst they’ll think I have a new dating technique.

1)    Does Salesforce think it is appropriate to make their advocates the butt of a joke in order to promote their product?

  • There is a disparity between men and woman as a result of social conditioning around sexuality and it has specific connotations for the workplace. There is still a professional tension between it being empowering for men to make jokes about their sexuality and it being disempowering for women to do so.

2)    Does Salesforce think it is okay to use sexual humour in a way that emphasises the gender disparity in a professional context to promote their product?

  • The joke here would be fine on a t-shirt given away at a rock concert; however it jars in this context because of the professional setting. I’m all for exploring boundaries, but widely upheld boundaries should also be acknowledged.

3)    Does Salesforce think it is okay to ignore cultural and social boundaries widely held in their target audience in order to promote their product?

I don’t believe giving away marketing t-shirts is a responsible way to engage with these issues, certainly not by design but not by accident either. Intention or lack of it doesn’t stop these issues coming to mind and associations being formed between the brand and the issues raised by inappropriate sexual humour. Here we come back to my detail argument above and we find ourselves questioning what precisely motivated the use of this marketing device. These things are important when we are trying to decide where to stake our loyalty as customers or advocates of a company or brand.

As it happens, I believe the answer to each of the three questions posed above is no, but I had to think about it. I’d really like to know what other people think, please take the time to comment if you have an opinion on the subject.

Lovely, committed, driven people at Salesforce – thank you so much for putting on a fantastic event that has benefitted me. Bearing in mind all that stuff you’re doing so right: are my questions above what you want your audience to be thinking when they think about you? How can we open up a dialogue that will help me understand where you were coming from and help you understand why I (and no doubt others) responded the way I have?