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?

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16 thoughts on “Force-ing the gender issue

  1. I think your questions and thoughts on the wording on the Tshirts was valid and if I had attended the event in question and been given that Tshirt, I too would have felt uncomfortable. There is a time and place for humour of that ilk and for me, a prefessional event is not it.

    I attended a business event two weeks ago which was for local businesses promoting themselves to potential clients attending the event. I was rather disturbed to see 1 company there using the stereo-typical marketing ploy of having 3 lovely young ladies dressed in high heels, wearing the shortest shorts and low cut tops displaying cleavage as a way of enticing people to their stand. I actually had a chat with 2 of the young ladies who confirmed to me that not only were they uncomfortable wearing what they were, their feet were killing them as the event was a full day but they were also freezing. For me, that demonstrated a total lack of regard for the 3 girls by their employers.

    I think that when it comes to marketing our businesses, creating marketing giveaways, we can come up with more creative and fun ways without any sexual connotations involved.

    1. Dear Patricia,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my post. I am really glad I am not the only one who feels this way. I do feel uncomfortable about sexual humour and sexual stereotypes being used to market products in a professional context and I genuinely think that companies could find much better, much more creative ways to market themselves.

      I also think they need to be more aware of the potential cost to their reputation and business if they treat this subject cavalierly.

      Thank you for sharing your opinion. If I get enough comments on the blog then I will send it to the company in question so please encourage anyone else you know to comment if they have an opinion to share (whether they agree with me or not).

      Louise

  2. It is not- I repeat NOT – appropriate to bring sexual language into the workplace. I will get feminist on their ass if I have to, but for now…. it’s a marketing fail. Bad show.

    1. Hi Claire,

      You know how I feel about this and thanks SO much for supporting this by sharing your thoughts on the subject. It is indeed not appropriate to bring sexual language and it is by no means a bit of harmless fun. If you know anyone else who has strong feelings please, please encourage them to read and share their thoughts.

      L

  3. It seems the company would rather grab attention rather than being professional and classy. Who would wear that t-shirt though? I suppose it’d be fine to sleep in, or redecorating the house. Something where you could cover it in mess and paint.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      thanks for taking the time to read and reply to my post 🙂 Your question is a really good one – who would want to wear that t-shirt? I certainly wouldn’t. I suppose Salesforce could argue that no one ever wears conference t-shirts so it isn’t really an issue, however that then raises the issue of why they wasted the money having hundreds of t-shirts printed when they didn’t even anticipate anyone wearing them! Either way, it feels like a cheap joke and the Salesforce and its employees deserve a better representation of what they stand for and women in the workplace (especially the traditionally male dominated digital industry) deserve a bit more sensitivity.

      Take care and I’ll see you soon, thanks again for reading my blog
      xx

  4. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Clearly the organisers didn’t think this through, which is a shame as the event itself sounds valuable and otherwise well presented. Humour, much like beauty, very much depends on the eye of the beholder.

    1. Thanks! It is great to get a male point of view on the subject. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I completely agree, it is a real shame because the company is doing great stuff and the event was exceptionally well presented in every other detail.

      Just goes to show that humour is a tricky beast and we do all make mistakes with it from time to time. I’ll be the first to admit that!

      Louise

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and then comment, Luke. I’m not sure what the thinking process was either and that bothers me. It isn’t that I don’t get the joke, I do. And I may well find it funny if it were between friends, but I don’t find it funny at a professional conference.

  5. Given that the male t-shirt says the same thing, I am not sure that there is too much that should be read into this. If there was a different message saying “smart” and “stupid” then I think there’s a case to answer.

    It is meant to be tongue-in-cheek rather than sexual stereotyping. I think that if this was a campaign for make or female cancer awareness, we would not be talking about this.

    What Salesforce are guilty of is trying something a bit risque to get their unique message across. With respect, I think that taking offence in this is a bit over-sensitive.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read the post and then comment. Thanks especially for sharing a differing opinion, I respect and appreciate it.

      I take your point that both male and female shirts have the same slogan and this is tongue in cheek humour.

      However this post is my reaction and I don’t think it is unreasonable given the context and history of gender politics in the workplace. I would prefer to do business with companies that I feel respect my views on socially important issues like this.

  6. At first I was puzzled as to what the phrase on the t-shirts was supposed to mean and what did it refer to and what was it trying to promote? After having it explained to me (I’m online) the problems of the innuendo implied doesn’t go away. But I think also overall that as a marketing ploy this is failure because the company’s delegates, male and female, will think twice before wearing these to any sort of occasion except may to veg out on the sofa. ALONE.

    Chat, clouds, business media and social media are well saturated arenas already. You’d have to do very much more than this to convince me you’re needed in this crowded field. I don’t think sexual innuendo is appropriate if you are asking others to carry your marketing message for free. It isn’t an over-reaction to point out the ways in which it falls down in a world which still has deadly gender politics, but also in which we are bombarded with much more sophisticated types of marketing. It is, after all, supposed to make me feel a need for the product, even when I do not have an actual need. It assumes, in the same way that people telling a racist joke do for their audience, that you agree with that level and character of communication. And can be seen as just as offensive.

    1. Thanks for reading and then taking the time to comment, Michele. Particularly, thanks for the reminder that at the end of the day the crucial business point is for the potential for this marketing ploy to simply fail in its objectives (which are to be promoted by people who recieve a free t-shirt wearing it and/or to make people feel a need for the product).

      That the marketing device could fail as a result of an erroneous assumption that the intended audience do not agree with the level and character of communication employed is (hopefully) of relevance and interest to Salesforce.

  7. Hi Louise,

    We appreciate the feedback and value your opinion. It was not our intention to insult, and we’re notifying the team that printed the shirts.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

    – Kendall, sr. community analyst at salesforce.com

  8. I hadn’t seen this T-shirt before your post (well, your tweet) and I can certainly see why women wouldn’t want to wear it (and why it therefore doesn’t succeed as a marketing tactic). What’s also interesting is that one of the first T-shirts that salesforce used to promote Chatter had “Follow me” on it, which could also be considered as having a double meaning. Now that I think about it, lots of social media terms (like, friend, follow, poke) have this problem.

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