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It’s a girl thing? It’s a patronising thing

Read Carefully

As someone who works in communications – and who is ‘pro-European’ – I often despair of the way the European institutions communicate.

Yes, some of the issues they handle are dry: explaining qualified majority voting or telling people why a Treaty of 300-plus articles is a good thing is no easy task. Yet the lack of success seems to have persuaded the European Commission to try a different tack. Bored of being ignored, it has decided to become some kind of troll.

Yesterday I walked through the esplanade of the European Parliament – a vast space where not much happens usually (I’m talking about the esplanade, not the Parliament itself…). A stage had been constructed with giant posters telling us that Science is ‘A Girl Thing’ – all part of the European Commission’s drive to get more women interested in careers in science. It is in some ways a laudable initiative (although I would argue that getting girls and boys interested in science is more relevant). However, it was spoiled entirely by its presentation.

The slogan is written out in pink lipstick. For good measure, a lipstick tube forms the ‘i’ of science. Women dressed in tight-fitting T-shirts walked around in two-metre high glittery bubbles. I thought it was patronising – and then I saw the video (see top of page).

At the time of writing, it has had 1,131 views on YouTube. It has 18 ‘likes’, and 740 ‘dislikes’. It has been almost universally panned on Twitter, including by people like Ben Goldacre, who has done more for public understanding of science than campaigns like this ever will.

So it’s been a disaster? Well, that depends what your aims are. It seems that the Commission officials and their PR firms simply want page views, YouTube hits and internet chatter in order to show what a success it has been in getting media attention and people talking about the issue.

Like those old emails that said ‘Free beer! Now I’ve got your attention…’, it is tedious and ultimately self-defeating – although the Commission seems happy with itself for the moment:

The Commission and the EU as a whole do lots of good things that don’t get much publicity. The other videos in the campaign, featuring real scientists telling real stories, have more depth, do not patronise the audience, and will probably be more popular.

Yet the Commission, as a body with only a modicum of democratic legitimacy, for some reason, seems to crave attention to justify its existence. And so you end up with the ‘It’s a Girl Thing’ teaser or the borderline xenophobic promotional video for enlargement that grab attention but ultimately turn the audience away from your message.

The lesson? Have a bit more confidence in what you do. If it’s a good initiative, you don’t need to shock to succeed. And don’t patronise your target audience: they are smart enough to see through a lousy gimmick.