06/03/2012 04:05 EDT | Updated 08/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Halifax Safe-Driving Ads: Sexy 'Bridget' Ads Criticized By Women Advocates

HALIFAX - Some say she's a confident, crime-fighting avenger, devoted to protecting drivers in Atlantic Canada's largest city.

Oh, and she does it while looking good in heels.

But others say "Bridget" — the fictional face of a sexy, safe-driving ad campaign in Halifax — is an offensive stereotype that succeeds only in insulting men and degrading women.

In particular, the campaign has crashed and burned with women's rights advocates, who argue women have for too long been objectified in advertising and the media.

"We were quite surprised and disappointed with the approach," said Irene Smith, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, a feminist organization in Halifax.

"It just seems to me that it's offensive to many, many women who've experienced any form of sexual violence or harassment or been subjected to sexist jokes and innuendoes."

Halifax Harbour Bridges launched the campaign May 14 to raise awareness of speeding, tailgating and texting while driving on the two bridges that span the city's harbour.

Minor fender-benders have been known to snarl traffic and cause annoying backups for the thousands of vehicles that cross the Macdonald and MacKay bridges daily.

At the centre of the campaign's billboards and banners is Bridget: an attractive young woman with dark, cat-eye makeup and slightly pursed lips.

In her innuendo-laced radio ads, Bridget talks breathlessly about her stilettos while tossing around orders and insults, admonishing tailgaters for being "dirtbags."

"A heavy foot doesn't flip my kilt," Bridget purrs during the 30-second spot by ad agency m5.

"Bridget likes a driver who takes it slow. So watch your speed on my bridge, fast boy, or watch out."

Bridget's smouldering gaze also adorns the so-called bounce pads above the bridges' toll baskets. Among her tantalizing Twitter posts is one telling followers "you know I like it when you go slow."

Smith said the timing of the campaign's launch — during Sexual Assault Awareness Month — was especially distressing.

Her organization has written a letter asking the bridge commission to pull the ads and publicly apologize for "a campaign that sexualizes and uses women as means for the commission's message."

Halifax Harbour Bridges is a commission of the Nova Scotia government, but receives no funding from taxpayers. The $50,000-campaign was funded by bridge tolls, said communications manager Alison MacDonald.

She said the commission wanted to get people's attention with "a strong, female character" in the same vein as a superhero in The Avengers or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

"We wanted to have a campaign that's a little humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and we also wanted the messages to come from a person and not an organization," said MacDonald.

"(Bridget's) not afraid to call people out when she sees people tailgating, speeding or not paying attention when they're driving."

Public reaction to the ads has been mixed.

"I think the campaign is brilliant!!!" tweeted hfxflyboy2011, one of Bridget's followers.

"Who ever came up with this was really thinking ... it gets great attention!!"

But one user named GillianWesleyNS tweeted that throwing bridge toll at an image of Bridget's face makes her "feel a little like I'm in a strip club."

Smith said the coin toss "has promoted the idea of being abusive to Bridget."

MacDonald said the commission apologizes if it has offended anyone with the campaign, but does not agree that the ads encourage sexual assault against women.

Halifax resident Suzanne Lively launched an online petition after hearing about the campaign. The filmmaker said she sustained whiplash after being rear-ended on a city bridge about three years ago, but failed to see the effectiveness of the Bridget ads.

She said the portrayal of Bridget is embarrassing.

"She's still using sex to sell her message, so I don't really see that that represents a woman in power," said Lively.

"I just think it would be great to see more examples of women as leaders and in power, not necessarily women once again using sex to get people's attention."

Lively also said the campaign is demeaning to men, portraying them as sex-obsessed, inattentive drivers.

Dan Shaw, a marketing professor at Dalhousie University, said sex, humour and fear have been used for generations to sell a message.

He points to a workers compensation board campaign that used images of gruesome injuries to highlight on-the-job dangers. Shaw said the ads were effective in their shock value, though some people felt the ads were too graphic.

He said there's a fine line between creating chatter and alienating the audience. Campaigns need to weigh the backlash.

"Talk is good; it means that people are talking about it, it's getting reach," said Shaw. "It can also blow up in your face."

As for Bridget?

"It's certainly contentious," he said. "It's on the line probably."

The tone of Bridget's Twitter feed has become less brazen and flirtatious since her debut — all part of her "evolution," explains MacDonald. Her tweets also make a point to address men and women drivers.

The campaign's radio and billboard components are scheduled to end around June 14. The commission has said it intends to bring Bridget back in the fall.

Despite the controversy, MacDonald said she doesn't know if Bridget will undergo a makeover before the campaign returns.

"We understand not everybody likes it," she said.

"That people feel so strongly one way or another was a surprise to us, I suppose. But never did we think that we'd get consensus."

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