Sex sells, but does it sell grain?
After losing its monopoly last year over the sale of wheat and barley grown in Western Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board finds itself in unfamiliar terrain: having to advertise the benefits of its services to entice farmers into its fold. Its latest ad is designed to get attention. Based on a 1969 piece by a leading pin-up artist, the late Gil Elvgren, dubbed “Hi-Ho Sliver,” the ad features a cowgirl in makeup and red boots straddling a wooden fence, lasso in hand, bare legs stretching out from a wind-swept skirt – hence, the sliver.
The ad – “Still on the fence?” – will appear in print publications and is aimed at farmers choosing between sticking with the CWB, or selling grain on their own. It caught attention, to be sure. But not everyone was charmed.
“It was just in such bad taste,” said Kathleen Charpentier, a rancher from Castor, Alta., and the women’s vice-president of the National Farmers Union. The group spoke out against the ad. “I don’t think that’s the way farm women want to be portrayed, certainly not the way I would like to be portrayed,” she said.
The ad is beautiful but miscalculates its target market, said Professor Barbara Phillips, the Rawlco Scholar in Advertising at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business.
“[Farmers] tend to be quite conservative people. They tend not to be cutting-edge, hipster farmers,” Prof. Phillips said. “So, probably, right away you’re not speaking to your target audience.” The ad is better suited for advertising a rib-night at a Montana’s restaurant, Prof. Phillips said.
The ad comes as the CWB contemplates its second-life – the federal government did away with its monopoly, which officially expired in August last year. Farmers are now not forced to use the CWB, which isn’t going down without a fight. The agency has gutted its staff, put its building up for sale and is in the process of being privatized as it tries to stay relevant.
“Now it’s a different world. We have to be out there competing and we have to get farmers’ attention. And we’ve got to show them that we’re innovative and we’re still very good at what we do,” said Dayna Spiring, the CWB’s chief strategy officer who approved the ad.
“We wanted something that stood out, something that caught people’s attention and got people talking. And we’ve accomplished that,” she said, adding the executive team approved it. “At the end of the day, as a woman, I was comfortable with it. And we decided to go with it.”
The advertisement itself is urging farmers to sign up for the CWB’s winter pool, where crops left from last year’s harvest are pooled together and sold by the CWB on farmers’ behalf.
The controversy stunned Louis Meisel, who wrote a book on the late Mr. Elvgren. “Gil Elvgren painted sexy, but chaste, all-American girls,” Mr. Meisel said from his New York gallery, adding: “Everybody loved them, and nobody thought they were sexist in any way.”
Bill Gehl, a Saskatchewan farmer and chair of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance advocacy group called the ad “stupid and in very poor taste.”
“It’s certainly sexist, there’s no doubt about it.”
It’s a distraction, he said, from the major issues still at hand – the privatization of the CWB, its ongoing overhaul and a pending class-action lawsuit, one he’s a part of, against the federal government for making the change. But he offered a caveat. “I’m not an advertising executive. I’m a farmer.”