After surviving unimaginable loss, Madonna Badger’s path forward was uncertain.
"You know, I thought I had to change everything," Badger told NBC New York sister station NBC Connecticut in an exclusive interview. "My whole life basically had been taken away from me."
Following the Christmas Day fire that claimed the lives of her daughters and parents in 2011, Badger moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, for a year and stayed with a college roommate while undergoing intensive therapy.
She tried her hand at becoming an antiques dealer but didn’t sell a thing. What she missed, she said, was a sense of purpose.
"So I turned to my friend Kate and I said, 'Look, I have this company in New York, this advertising agency that I've had for like over 20 years and I think I'm going to go back and give it a shot.'”
In 2013, Badger returned to New York. Today, she is back at the helm of her Fifth Avenue agency, Badger & Winters, where she is forging a new path: fighting for two missions that have redefined her purpose in life.
As a veteran advertising executive, Badger worked for major fashion designers and brands, and can readily rattle off telling statistics.
"Eleven percent of the creative directors in this country at advertising agencies are women," she told NBC Connecticut. "Women are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the purchases made in this country. Eighty five percent of women say ... most advertising does not speak to them."
Those jarring discrepancies, she said, prove the need for change. That’s why Badger is calling on her industry colleagues to stop using images that objectify women and girls. It’s a mission she calls #WomenNotObjects, which is also the title of a viral video her agency created that’s garnered millions of views and impressions online since it was posted on Jan. 11.
It’s based on an idea she first had in 2009 while attending a beauty summit that explored the paradigm of advertising psychology; a project that went on hold after the tragedy in 2011. Now Badger said the memory of her daughters – Lily, Sarah and Grace – has become the renewing, guiding force behind it.
"Three little precious girls," she said. "You know, I would be mortified if they were seeing some of the things that are out there today. Mortified.”
The #WomenNotObjects video begins with a Google search for "objectification of women." Sexualized images appear in advertisements for recognizable major brands as women mockingly critique them.
"I love sacrificing my dignity for a drink," one woman says in the video.
"I’d sell my body for a burger," says another.
Badger said her agency will reject such advertisements and lead by example by putting all campaigns through a four-point test:
1) No women as props, without a voice or choice.
2) No women as solely body parts.
3) No "plastic", unrealistic standards of Photoshopped perfection.
4) The "What if?" test: Asking "What if the woman portrayed here was my mother/sister/daughter/someone I love?"
Badger hopes consumers will follow her lead.
“We can vote with our wallets. You know, that's the way to change the world is to say, 'Hey, I don't like that. Don't talk to me that way. I'm not going to buy that,'” Badger said.
Search For Answers
Taking on the world of advertising isn’t the only fight that Badger isn’t backing down from.
"I'm a fighter, I’ve been a fighter my whole life. And I'm still fighting the city of Stamford," she said. "I'm still searching for the right answers there."
Fire officials determined discarded fireplace ashes were the cause of the deadly blaze. Badger isn't convinced.
"When you look at the photographs ... I mean, it's so obvious that it started in the basement and that it was an electrical fire," she told NBC Connecticut’s Heidi Voight.
But all the evidence, Badger said, and all her personal belongings were destroyed when the house was demolished within 24 hours.
Badger is careful to point out that she’s not critical of the first responders who worked to save her family and even served as pallbearers at her daughters’ funeral.
"I believe they did everything they knew how to do," she said. "I believe that."
Her fight – and her legal action on behalf of her children and parents’ estates – is against city officials.
NBC Connecticut reached out to the city of Stamford for comment, including representatives from the Mayor’s office, building and fire departments as well as the city’s legal counsel. Only the mayor’s office responded saying, due to ongoing legal proceedings, they cannot comment.