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Don Draper schmoozed onto TV screens in 2008. A reminder of the bygone days of advertising, when men in suits – surrounded by cigarette smoke – pitched campaigns to rooms of cut-and-paste versions of themselves, and women spectated from the sides as smiling secretaries or obliging wives.
Are the heydays of Draper behind us? Brands now compete to capture the attention of women through ‘empowering’ content: Victoria’s Secret swapped ‘Angels’ for ‘What Women Want’, L’Oreal handed creative control to influencers over 40, and Heineken’s ‘Cheers to all fans, men included’ rejected stereotypes around watching and enjoying sports.
While these big-splash moments are a positive sight, they should not blind the industry to the reality of gender inequality in media and advertising in 2023.
A Unilever study found that over 40% of women do not relate to the women shown in adverts. Kantar research revealed almost one in two people from marginalized groups felt they had been stereotyped in some way through advertising.
The 2023 Gender in Advertising Report from CreativeX, an analysis of 10,000+ ads supported by over $110M in ad spend, found:
This lack of equitable representation within advertising has real-world consequences.
A 2023 study from Sport England found 2.4 million fewer women than men enjoy sports in the UK, with women often struggling to feel confident exercising. This lack of confidence is compounded by unrealistic expectations placed on women by advertising.
Jane Cunningham and Phillipa Roberts (authors of Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It) speak to a ‘sneaky sexism’ that has emerged in adland over the past decade. While women are no longer being told to ‘fix’ their bodies in order to wear a bikini, they are being instructed to be bolder, stronger, and more outspoken. To defy patriarchal beauty standards and expectations, but also be a good mother, and supportive friend, and run marathons on the weekend.
This insistence on women being bolder and more defiant has created an equally unrealistic set of expectations as the previous insistence on all women conforming to an ‘ideal’ body type. A Samsung ad featuring a woman running at night was intended to ‘empower’ women. It overlooked the fact that 1 in 5 women worry about their safety while working out.
‘Sneaky sexism’ is implicit rather than explicit. An ad from the UK government during the height of the pandemic subtly emphasized a ‘woman’s role’ as caregiver and homemaker. The state of play laid out in the (withdrawn) advert mimicked reality almost comically. Throughout the pandemic, women around the world were overwhelmingly more responsible for homeschooling and childcare, as well as completing household chores as compared with men.
Unequal representation in ads is symptomatic of a much broader problem.
Women are leaving advertising roles in droves at both the entry and executive levels. Now comprising just 35% of the marketing, media, and ad tech sector - down from 41% in 2021. In 2022, women made up just 3% of creative directors at ad agencies.
As companies look to increase operational efficiency, the gender pay gap in adland has only widened - a distressing signal given that firms cut first what they deem least valuable. The 2022 IPA Agency Census reveals a pay gap of 17.4% in favor of men over women and an ethnicity pay gap of 21.1% in favor of white employees.
Elsewhere in media, while Daniel Lee and Pharrell were elevated to top jobs in fashion, no women were nominated for best artist at the Brit Awards, and the Oscar nominations have once again snubbed women in the Best Director category.
Mounting evidence demonstrates that more authentic representation positively impacts bottom lines. Brands need to focus on representation that is authentic, and not fall into the trap of continually inventing new characters women need to aspire to become.
Kantar’s AdReaction study ‘Getting Gender Right’, found adverts that featured women demonstrating intelligence and expressing opinions performed better, increasing brand impact by 37% and purchase intent by 27%.
Bobbi Brown research demonstrated customers responded more positively to hearing brands using consumers’ own words. Ads featuring everyday New Yorkers drove consideration lift more than double the beauty category benchmark.
A BrainTrust study in collaboration with Sally’s beauty supply store found that Black female influencers engaged with their followers “at a rate of 261% more than their general market peers”, carving out space for themselves with online communities brands would be foolish to ignore.
The signs of change are already there. Pinterest launched a new filter in 2021 based on hair texture, enabling users to more easily access content relevant to them. Annie Ta, Head of the Inclusive Products Team, explained: “As a visual discovery platform, we have an opportunity and responsibility to do a better job of increasing representation in the products we build.”
To tackle sneaky sexism, we need a way to measure it. We have an opportunity to drive change in an area that we as marketers fully control: creating more representative advertising.
That journey is powered by creative data, which can unlock insights from our ads that demystify the casting and storytelling choices we’re making and help us pave the way towards making the type of content that reflects our society at large and where we’re heading. Creative data can be used as a compass in a storm for brands seeking to make change - translating positive intent into measurable action.
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