Why we need more ad makers that think #LikeAGirl

Always' '#LikeAGirl' campaign

Sitting on the jury for the Cannes Media Lions has been a powerful reminder that while judging requires a careful balance of heart vs head, for me, memorable work must have meaning and capture the zeitgeist. Killer creative and the smartest media plan will count for nothing if the message doesn’t speak to people’s hearts and minds.

This year, the campaign that made an impact on me (and countless others!) was Always’ '#LikeAGirl', which has just been honoured with a Glass Lion at Cannes, along with ‘This Girl Can’ for Sport England from the UK. The Grand Prix was taken by ‘Touch the Pickle’ for Proctor and Gamble India, a worthy inaugural winner. This is groundbreaking work that effectively challenges and inverts damaging societal taboos.

Wonderfully, we are seeing a trend for strong, empowered and realistic images of women. Recognition and celebration of this shift towards a more positive, progressive portrayal of gender in communications by Cannes is a super encouraging step for our industry and the introduction of the Glass Lion category reflects a hunger for change in the way women are represented in advertising.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to bring to mind examples of ads that portray women (or men for that matter) unfairly or offensively. Only recently, Apple reinforced primitive gender stereotypes in a recent ad for Siri suggesting that men work while women handle groceries. And this from an allegedly future-facing brand!

Persisting use of gender stereotypes is not just lazy and unhelpful – it damages women’s self-esteem and needs to be called out. While men’s physicality now comes under increasing levels of scrutiny, it doesn’t feel as pressing an issue for me – not least while the ‘dad bod’ is still being celebrated.

In the UK, the issue of women’s objectification in advertising became national news following consumer outcry around sports supplement maker Protein World’s crass 'Are you beach body ready?' campaign. Its gratuitous use of a highly unachievable female image spurned a Twitter backlash, highlighting the power consumers wield to call out misrepresentation via social media. It’s hard to believe that a campaign like this saw light of day – particularly given growing awareness of communications’ influence on women’s body image.

Pioneering work like Dove’s 'Self Esteem Project' has already broken new ground in subverting worrying self-esteem issues. We’re also starting to see increasingly progressive work around gender and sexuality – Smirnoff’s 'We’re Open' campaign making a playful yet profound step to challenge norms.

Female-focused ads need to continue to smash stereotypes and portray a true feminine voice, not only to protect women’s self-esteem but also to preserve the reputation of the industry. How can we do this? A great start is to address the issue of female representation within the advertising and media profession.

Within our industry we’re actually doing quite well on the gender equality front, with women making up 55 per cent of the advertising workforce within the US and, in the UK, 25 per cent of senior management roles across the industry held by women. And forward-facing organisations are raising awareness of crucial issues such as unconscious bias. But there is much work to be done.

We need senior women on both sides of the Atlantic to inspire change, by speaking out and sharing their learnings, something we encourage at UK female-only club Women in Advertising and Communications (WACL) and ditto the great work by Advertising Women of New York (AWNY).

It’s crucial that senior women help others up the ladder and create strong networks to usher in a new leadership narrative. We need to get behind campaigning movements such as the US-born 3% Conference, which recently held its first London event pushing for more female creative directors.

The great Tess Alps, Thinkbox chair, spoke about the bias of a “male gaze” at a recent House of Commons debate in the UK on the representation of women in ads. Until we have more female creative minds in charge, how can we possibly accurately depict the female experience?

If you haven’t yet viewed #Likeagirl and its fellow Glass Lion winners, I urge you to. A single ad can’t change the world, but advertising is aspirational and it is within our power to use this as a force for positive change.

Lindsay Pattison is worldwide CEO at Maxus

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