Women are not a niche market, but much of today’s marketing and advertising is only just starting to recognize this.
The year is 2021. Women have careers. They have spending power. They are increasingly taking their place in professional and executive ranks.
Yet much of advertising and marketing is stuck in the past, showing women less frequently, with fewer words spoken, less often in positions of authority, but more often shown in a sexual light, according to a recent study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDI).
Modern feminism has been in the mainstream for the past half-century. Women make up half the population — they are not a niche market. Why are advertisers, at best, only now starting to notice this?
The problem is not new
The notion that the zenith of a woman’s career is husband-marriage-children “is an idea that has been cemented in our culture for such a long time,” said Jane Cunningham, co-founder of PLH Research, who along with founding partner Philippa Roberts co-authored the book “Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It.”
“In a world where mostly men are in charge, women are encouraged to behave in ways that are pleasing,” Roberts said.
“Women are often cast in the role of not speaking,” Cunningham added. They are not seen leading. They are seen wearing less clothing. “Creative directors have been fed this stuff for decades”, so it is hard to escape when they have nothing to lose by perpetuating it, she said.
That cliché creates a huge blind-spot. Case in point: Third Love versus Victoria’s Secret. Third Love markets bras that fit women. Victoria’s Secret? Well…“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” Cunningham said. “Underwear is for the wearer, not the viewer. Victoria’s Secret tanked for the past five years because they failed to move on.”
Another brand with a positive approach is Frida Mom, which markets a line of products new mothers will actually find useful rather than decorative. Motherhood is a challenging, new job, Cunningham noted, which is not the same as the good wife/mother trope that was pitched in the past.
Yet another blind spot is purchasing power. Women make 80% of the consumer purchasing decisions, and women over 50 have 40% of the purchasing power in the market at large. “They are certainly not a niche,” Cunningham said. Yet they are practically invisible in ads. Older women should be a primary focus for many businesses.
The problem is lack of diversity
Burger King meant well when it sponsored a scholarship to develop more women chefs in the U.K. But they announced the program with a tweet: “A woman’s place is in the kitchen.” Outrage followed, which subsequent tweets failed to temper. While the tweet was meant to be funny and thought provoking, it became the controversy and failed to uplift the brand.
The incident illustrates two problems: Laziness and lack of diversity, according to marketing consultant Tim Parkin.
“Marketing teams got away with this for a long time,” Parkin said. They will “repeat past successes. What worked before is not applicable today.” Also, women and minorities are poorly represented among the decisionmakers in the C-suites.
In the past, “people put up with it,” noted Parkin. But the culture is shifting and becoming more diverse, and marketing has to adapt to this, he said.
“In terms of the leading media advertisers we partner with, they are acutely aware of the disparities,” said Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO at GDI. Firms are making some headway on issues of diversity, equality and inclusion, less so when dealing with the disabled, aged and the LGBTQ community, she noted. While men do head these firms, “they recognize the blind spot and the weakness’” she added.
The problem can be solved
Change is coming at the enterprise level, as diversity is shifting away from being an HR problem to one that is best addressed by a dedicated senior executive who can cultivate diversity, equality and inclusion, Di Nonno said. That change in staffing should lead to a difference in creative contributions that can better reach diverse markets.
GDI can provide useful feedback and guidance. “Some partners use us in the pre-production role, some as an annual audit,” Di Nonno continued. When reviewing ads, GDI will score on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, LGTBQ, disability, Age 50+ and body type. “To create a system of change, there has to be a review process,” she said.
“Do try to learn more about the customer,” Parkin added. “Really be customer-centric all the time.” Here firms can make better use of surveys and community engagement, co-marketing and co-branding with other groups, he said.
Influencers also offer another opportunity for outreach and insight. They can connect with the audience as a partner and not a mouthpiece, Parkin pointed out. Influencers are often used in one-way communication, but can also provide insightful feedback in a two-way role, he noted. “This is not something that can be solved by data alone.”
Gimmicks like “fempowerment” will not work, Roberts said. Brands have “used the fempowerment ideal to sell things,” and it just co-opts feminism instead. Notions like “women can do anything “or “lean in” are only true up to a point. “It neatly sidesteps the idea that anything was wrong with the system or the culture,” she said. Fempowerment is thus a superficial correction, “replacing the male gaze with a male glance.”
The better solution is simpler: “Properly listen to women,” Roberts said. Use the research in a deep way, be open to what you are seeing and hearing, and act accordingly, she said.
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