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Here’s a conundrum for you. And a probably quite dangerous post for me.

Consider the “Science – it’s a girl thing” video:

Shocking, eh? Moreover, this came relatively soon after the infamously racist Enlargement video (hard to find, but a cruelly funny copy can be found here), so my initial, gut reaction was awestruck horror.

And I wasn’t alone:

“In service of the completely laudable goal of getting more young women interested in science and research careers, the EC commissioned a video that invokes every possible offensive cliche: pink, giggling, short skirts, skyscraper heels, lipstick, lipstick as a writing instrument, makeup, makeup brushes, sexy poses, air kisses, men in white coats sliding their glasses up to get a better look, girls bouncing up and down hugging each other, and models of molecules falling down and breaking because OMG TEH SCIENZ IZ SO HARD.”

“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”: Lab Barbie, Extra Lipstick, Wired

There were hundreds of similar reactions (the above video comes courtesy of Nicole Gugliucci’s excellent post, or just google it) so the EC issued an apology (pdf), pulled the video and reoriented the campaign (quite adroitly).

Did anyone ask the audience?

But not before a few people pointed out that noone had asked the girls.

Over the subsequent days, news filtered out that teenage girls liked that video. Some said that it made them view science in a different light. You probably won’t find it now because of OGWOG (Outrage Generally Wins on Google), but the reports were there.

Now please, please, please, don’t get me wrong:

1) I too would prefer my daughter to take an interest in science because it’s fascinating and rewarding, not because of a wannabe MTV video with a budget to match.

2) And maybe those reports were wrong – after all, Nicole (and others) provide plenty of counter-arguments:

“two studies that indicate that a campaign like this only serves to demotivate girls”
– Why “Pinkifying” Science Does More Harm Than Good, Nicole Gugliucci

I don’t contest that.

3) And I certainly understand why female scientists worldwide were horrified and offended by the video. I was too (the guy in the video should have stuck to his microscope and stopped ogling girls a decade younger than him).

But there’s a good lesson to be learnt here, and a very interesting hypothetical:

Lesson: You are not your audience

When I heard that teenage girls saw science differently after viewing that video, it made me question my gut reaction. Which was, after all, as a middle-aged guy with a theoretical physics degree – about as far from the target audience as you can get.

I wasn’t the audience. And neither were the female scientists and science journalists who took to Twitter to complain. They were already interested in science.

So it’s an excellent lesson in the value of audience research: never assume you understand your audience.

Hypothetical

We know the video was massively offensive. Now let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that the video was also massively effective at interesting girls in science.

It almost certainly wasn’t. But let’s just say it was.

My question:

If such a video successfully got girls interested in science, is it worth the offense it causes to everyone else?

I genuinely don’t have an answer to that. Do you?

It’s an important one, because in today’s communications-drenched world, standing out is essential. And the more you stand out, the more people you’re likely to piss off.

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