'Sexist' Watercare ad pulled from social media as advertising guru tells offended people to 'lighten up' and 'get over it'

Screengrabs of Watercare's ad against stock image of a shower
The controversial ad has now been pulled from Watercare's social media. Photo credit: Getty Images, X / screengrabs

"Lighten up" is an advertising expert's response to the firestorm of controversy prompted by a now-deleted Watercare post on social media that encouraged women to take shorter showers.   

On Tuesday, the Auckland water provider shared an advertisement to its social channels that utilised a meme of Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian appearing to reach into a large fire, with the caption: "Girls checking the water temperature before they take a shower."   

Alongside the meme, Watercare wrote: "Ladies, we're all for showering in a fiery inferno, but 27% of your power bill is used to heat water. So, let's keep it snappy to keep your wallet happy! 1 shower, 4 minutes - it's all you need #MakeEveryDropCountAKL."

A screenshot of Watercare's post
Photo credit: @watercare_nz / X

The post quickly attracted criticism on X (formerly known as Twitter), with North Shore councillor Richard Hills branding the ad as "sexist" before adding: "This was not part of the water conservation strategy I asked Watercare to show me."

Following the backlash on Tuesday, Watercare's head of communications Rachel Hughes issued a statement that defended the ad, noting that "both women and men" feature in the company's 'Make Every Drop Count' campaign.

The campaign, which encourages the conservation of water during the summer months, has previously utilised memes in a bid to "target particular audiences," Hughes said, adding: "Men will not be exempt from our short shower messaging."

Screenshot of Richard Hills' response to Watercare's ad
Photo credit: @RichardHills_ / X

As of Wednesday morning, however, the post has been pulled from Watercare's channels, with the company issuing a statement via its social media that apologised for any offence caused.

In a separate statement to Newshub, Hughes reiterated that while the post had drawn on "a social media trend suggesting women prefer hotter showers," the content had "missed the mark."

"While we aim to make our social media content fun and engaging, we recognise that, on this occasion, we missed the mark. We acknowledge that our posts have caused offense and have taken them down this morning," Hughes said.

"We regret any hurt and offence caused and offer our sincere apologies."

'Blown out of proportion'

But advertising expert and business columnist Mike Hutcheson, the executive director of Image Centre Group, has defended Watercare's social media strategy, calling on those who were offended by the ad to "lighten up" and "get over it."

Speaking to Newshub, Hutcheson argued the ad was using "a bit of light humour" to communicate an important message around water conservation, noting that a light-hearted approach is typically a "much better way of reaching audiences than taking a lecturing tone."   

"[Water shortages] are a serious issue, a really serious issue. To think, even now, that we use potable water to wash ourselves and wash our cars and wash our dishes. We should only be drinking it, we're just all lucky," he said.

"I think the reaction is ridiculous because it's true - we do waste water."   

Hutcheson also argued that in his personal experience, women typically do enjoy longer showers - citing the bathing habits of the three female members of his household.

"One of the greatest defences against libel is proof, and while it may sound and could be sexist, it's an observational fact - and I know it living in a house with three women, it's true. So what?" he said.   

"We live in a culture of complaint, and it saddens me to think that any issue people can take outrage with gets amplified by social media.    

"The trouble with this culture of complaint is that people think it's okay to complain about anything and just jump on a bandwagon.   

"I think it's been blown out of all proportion - just get over it."   

The negative response to the ad has "absolutely" strengthened its effectiveness, with the backlash only heightening the message's exposure, Hutcheson added.

Despite this, he agreed that men shouldn't be exempt from Watercare's short-shower messaging and if the campaign is relying on humour, it should ensure everyone is part of the joke. 

But social media commentator Anna Rawhiti-Connell agreed with the backlash, telling RNZ on Tuesday that Watercare was acting on an "old-school gender stereotype about women taking longer to get ready than men."   

"'Ladies' has quite an old-school, rugby club feel to it. And I think women do often read that as quite a patronising term," she added.   

Rawhiti-Connell also argued the ad would have rankled some individuals who may have felt the company was ordering them to change their personal bathing habits.   

"Not only have they isolated one specific gender, but it's quite personal and individual, pointing the finger at individuals around their own water use," she said.

"There is something distinctly uncomfortable about a faceless brand reaching into your home like that to talk to you about something that you do when you're naked."

In their statement on Tuesday, Watercare added that the concept of women enjoying hotter showers was inspired by a "trend" they had observed on social media.

"We thought we’d piggyback off this trend (which resurfaced on Instagram recently) by resharing a meme and reminding women of the cost savings they can make by keeping their showers short. 

"From time to time, we do target particular audiences with our social media content to ensure it resonates with them."