Where are all the funny women in advertising?

'D'ya want a flake in that, love?' Mel Sykes surprised for Boddingtons

When Lynne Parker started handling the PR for a comedy club in 1999, she noticed a distinct lack of women on the bill. It was a strictly 'no girls allowed' affair as night after night the stage filled with bawdy men.

“I asked the booker why,” she recalls, “and he said: ‘because women aren’t funny’.”

The comedy world has slowly – begrudgingly, perhaps – changed since Parker’s days in the club, a job from which she was unceremoniously fired, eventually. The BBC’s decision to ban all-male panel shows has provided a public platform for female comics such as Kerry Godliman, Aisling Bea and Sarah Pascoe to find fame, as have events and support networks such as Funny Women, which Parker went on to found in 2002.

In the US the story is pleasingly similar. The success of Bridesmaids’ all-female cast and the mass adoration of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon and company appears to have given Hollywood the commercial green light to put more funny women on both the small and silver screen. Last summer, Amy Schumer broke onto highest-paid comedians list – the first women ever to do so.

Yet ad land is still averse to funny women. It shouldn’t take a report from the Geena Davis Institute to reveal that women represent a tiny proportion of comical characters in advertising, but here are the stats anyway: in 2017, men are 2.6 times more likely to be funny in ads than female characters.

This regression can be supported anecdotally. When a room of female ad executives were asked what their favourite ads featuring funny women were, The Drum was greeted either with confused, embarrassed grimaces or the old school answers: Heineken’s ‘Water in Majorca’ or Maureen Lipman’s grandma for BT in 1988.

“What’s happened to those kind of ads?” asks Parker, following her Funny Women event held in partnership with the MAA. “Well, there’s a spurious use of celebrities. Hardly any brands use female comedians – they tend to use female actors that can do funny.

“You’ve often got well-known celebrities, who are not comedians, just taking the piss out of themselves by playing themselves.”

Parker lists examples such as Joan Collins in Snickers’ ‘Changing Room’ and Nicole Kidman’s stint with Compare the Market. But there’s an entire back catalogue of this creative genre, whereby a female actor features in a ‘funny’ ad, but it’s the context – not her – ­ that’s funny. The A-lister is often cast as the exasperated beacon of realism amid a background of hilarity and chaos; there’s no better example of this than Jennifer Aniston attempting to read a Smartwater script while surrounded by hordes of skateboarding puppies.

Female comics have broken through the casting process before. Dawn French had a pretty good run with Terry’s Chocolate Orange, as did Katherine Parkinson and Amanda Abbington with Maltesers. Kristen Wiig was able to flex her funny muscles in a Pizza Hut ad that showed off her versatility playing characters (both women and men). Katherine Ryan, today’s golden girl of UK standup, has landed spots in the last six months with both Samsung and Suzuki.

But­ much like the meerkat-loving Kidman, Ryan is admittedly playing herself.

“I don’t think brands know what to do with female comedians,” says Parker. “I don’t think anyone’s writing for them, and it’s all in the writing – it’s all in the creative process.”

Parker only recently learned of the dearth of high-level female creatives in advertising – a “shocker”, even for someone cutting their teeth in the misogyny of the 00s standup scene. Her solution would be to “put a bunch of women in a room, tell them what you’re trying to sell to them, and they’ll come up with a campaign for you”.

A simpler (and more client-friendly) idea would be to hire and retain more female creatives. “‘Real’ women are funny, so when we see more real women in advertising we’ll see funnier women,” says Nicky Bullard, chairman and chief creative officer at MRM Meteorite. “I think that’s the debate.”

But for Creative Equals’ founder and chief executive, Ali Hanan, the problem is rooted deeper than the creative process. “It starts before the creative directors with the briefs themselves,” she says. “Sometimes, planners are lazy, drawing on 'stereotypes' for shortcuts. We're tired of the 'singletons', the 'frazzled multijuggler'. I've seen endless briefs with the proposition being aimed at solving the time pressures of busy mums.

“Good advertising starts with smart, savvy insights that become a platform for emotion. And, while we get a lot of 'femvertising’ – worthy, gender equality work like the pay equality ad, 'Daughters' from Audi ­– the fact is women have a great sense of humour. Generally, [advertising] is very gritty and purpose driven, which is great, but sometimes we all miss…a laugh.”

Another issue is the brevity of commercials. Male humour, Parker explained, is generally superficial and quick: there’s a joke, there’s a punchline and there’s a laugh. Women’s humour tends to be more long-form, involved and contextual, which in a world of six-second ads is difficult to convey.

The beauty of standup comedians is not only are they funny in the delivery, but they write their own material that’s based in truth.

“Real life is bloody funny,” says Parker. “Lots of funny shit happens when you’re trying to get your kids off to school or you’re dealing with an elderly parent. But in advertising it’s always ‘girls’ night out’ and those hideous commercials where women all go to a disco that looks straight out of Saturday Night Fever. Sorry – but that doesn’t happen.”

Building female comics into creative process could, therefore, be an answer to getting more funny women into ads. Parker envisions a creative process more akin to the writers’ rooms of American sitcoms, where scripts are written by a diverse group of people rather than one partnership, and jokes are given the space to develop.

“Netflix and HBO have done a fantastic job of getting the best female writers… whereas advertising in comparison is lagging,” says Anna Carpen, executive creative director at 18 Feet & Rising. “It’s a shame because some of the best advertising doubles as entertainment. And if this is the case we’re missing a huge creative opportunity.

“Creatives need to cast their net far and wide rather than auditioning from the same pools. Go to your local improv show to find them instead. They are there – I’ve used them – and they are way funnier than anyone who will rock up at a casting.”

It’s these same female TV writers – the likes of Fey, Poehler, Lena Dunham and Issa Rae – that build confidence in Grey’s joint chief creative officer, Vicki Maguire.

“Comedy has moved on and we’re playing catch up,” she says. “There is hope. Sharon Hogan has her own production company and I’m just waiting for [Fleabag’s] Phoebe Waller Bridge to come and blow the fucking doors off."

Funny ads with funny women

Jess MacGillivray, account director at Sense London

“One campaign that stands out for me was aired in the late 1990s. It’s the Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc’s Kingsmill series of adverts. It has a quality that’s increasingly being seen as key today – authenticity. I feel that the comedy duo were being true to their own personalities in this ad. They come across as real rather than acting, which is so often the case. Take John Cleese, for example, who has arguably flogged his Basil Fawlty character more than is strictly necessary.

“What’s more, they made me laugh – you can see the real friendship and bond they have. These were two real women, bouncing off each other and not, one feels, following a tight script. This to me is crucial if women comedians want to be perceived as credible in advertising, and retain their current reputations in comedy circles, not to mention those of the brands they are representing.”

Ali Hanan, founder and chief executive of Creative Equals

"I like ironic ads that poke at the advertising stereotypes, like Reality Check by Kotex, which was written by Lalita Salgaokar, a young advertising writer in New York.

Or the Real Morning Report by Organic Balance. I love that they've gained some funny insights about real women and juxtaposed it with the Instagram perfect life we're all supposed to live. Genius, and the last line lands it.”

Rania Robinson, managing director at Quiet Storm

“When thinking about ads featuring funny women, one that came to mind almost straight away for me was Melanie Sykes in the 90s Boddingtons ads. At the time it was an absolute pastiche of the very cliché, typical perfume ads of the time, so there was a real unexpected nature to the humour. Melanie Sykes was pretty much unheard of at the time so there was no sense of what you were going to get from her performance – she looked absolutely glamorous and then when she opened her mouth and said 'd’ya want a flake in that, love?’ you just didn’t expect it.

“I also thought the latest Taylor Swift ad for Apple Music was really funny. She’s on a treadmill, getting carried away with her music and in turn falls flat faced onto the treadmill. I like that because it was nice to see her not take herself to seriously. If it was a regular actress it wouldn’t have been that funny – but the fact it was Taylor Swift meant it was.”

Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

All by Katie