Vox Pop: What do women want in advertising?

Since advertising first began, women have been portrayed through every single stereotype known. Decades on, the message has been transposed to a different level of incredulity. Before, women were confined to the kitchen, now we run the world. A message of empowerment and confidence, of the limitless opportunities for women in the world today are fired here, there and everywhere. Is there a risk that too much pressure is imposed? Is it possible advertisers are asking too much of one individual to be strong and powerful in every aspect of daily life? The Drum Network asks its members- has the message of empowerment gone too far?

Nickii Gray, managing director, Intermarketing

I love the whole premise of girl power, and am incredibly proud of being a successful young female in business. If I can inspire other young girls to be ambitious and set their sights high, then bring it on. But I find 'feminism' insanely hypocritical. It leapfrogs over equal rights. Women should be high fived for being successful absolutely. And there is still a lot of progress to be made for businesses to offer truly equal opportunities. But to play the ‘female’ card isn’t equality. And I believe it will undermine women in the long run. I think the same is true of advertising. Empowering women is awesome. But the whole concept of ‘femvertising’ isn’t about empowerment, it is about creating a new stereotype for women. It doesn’t represent diversity and equality, instead it creates a ‘monster’ for women to worry about trying, but not necessarily wanting, to become. Girl power is about confidence, positivity, being authentic, both in life and business, and achieving whatever your goals are by being the best version of yourself.

Tina Judic, Managing Director of Found

With the latest Davies report pushing for more women on company boards, Michelle Obama creating a playlist to support the UN’s International Day of the Girl initiative and even Girlguiding using its memberships’ muscle to bang the drum for its Girls Matter campaign, we appear to be wading through an ever-deepening tide of high level and highly impressionable female empowerment.

However, from an advertising perspective, we seem to be sinking into a queasy tangle of hashtags, slogans and viral sharing. We’ve seen sanitary product producers preaching equalism at the Super Bowl, beauty brands reminding us of our individual beauty, EDF showcasing stem-based careers for women and then just this month a new ad from Mattel for its Barbie brand reminding all of us wannabes to ‘Imagine the Possibilities’! Enough! Even the phrase ‘femvertising’ is just too much.

Charlotte McMurray, digital performance director, Silverbean

Advertising to women is not about empowering women, it’s about encouraging women to buy things. Marketers are presenting a story they believe their female customers will engage with, and while campaigns like ‘This Girl Can’ are fantastic, they’re reflecting societal change, not driving it.

The fact that (white, middle-class, Western) women are under pressure to achieve perfection in all aspects of their lives – family, career, fitness, beauty, relationships – is not a sign that feminism has ‘gone too far’, but that it’s not yet gone far enough. Feminism will have achieved its goals when women can prioritise or deprioritise certain aspects of their lives as they prefer, without having to justify or explain their choices. Unfortunately that’s unlikely to make for very “empowering” advertising campaign!”

Rebecca Lee, senior digital strategist, ORM

Or have we really gone anywhere? You could argue that we've simply exchanged one narrow idealism for another: the faultless housewife for the flawless (and ceiling-less) exec. Marketing to women’s evolving and diversifying aspirations has left planners scratching their heads and resorting to re-hashed versions of ‘having it all’. Take this campaign for Schweppes by French agency, Herezie: the attempt to convey empowerment falls terribly flat. “Why look for a prince when you’re already the queen?” asks a grey-tone image of a feline-faced Madame, unstirring in the darkness. Empowered? No. Passive, rhetorical, remote.

Not that it’s all bad out there. Agencies (particularly in the UK) have responded nimbly to the complexities of ‘feminism 2.0’, to commercial effect and with good humour. The women in our ads and our viral videos are lumpier and sweatier. In the USA they are aspirational and less apologetic. Brilliant. These are powerful campaigns which avoid the stereotype of Schweppes’ ‘board-room belle’ by focusing on the revolution itself, rather than the empowerment tomorrow will bring.

Of course, this angle has its own drawbacks: defiance is cool and revolutions are exciting, but it’s hard to make them personal and immediate, to make them about my happiness, now; to make them sell. This is a real life catch-22 that says more about women’s shifting aspirations than it does about advertising (and it won’t be solved by clever copy!). So for now, it’s not a question of how far creatives should go to portray a vision of tomorrow’s woman, but that until the rest of us have figured out what she looks like, they’re better off sticking to jiggling bottoms.

Jade Tomlin, creative group head, Hugo & Cat

Now is an interesting time, year on year I’ve found the industry has been supportive of female talent in the workplace. One thing worth remembering is that guys grow up playing aggressive sports where they scrum and tackle one another on a pitch. They tend to naturally enjoy competition. For us girls growing up was different – having to stop, pivot and even step backwards before passing a blooming netball. What a nightmare.

Still the reality is that we work in a competitive industry where smart thinking must solve problems for agency survival. It’s time to be more courageous and ‘lean in’ at every opportunity – cue Sheryl Sandberg. We share the power and responsibility to grow the economy. The internet has enabled businesses to sprout by the hundreds, only adding to the competition. Have we gone too far? Nope, I think most of us are just getting started!

Sheri Matthews, account manager, Digital Visitor

Most advertising to women, or about women, has always been about being perfect. Whether it was about getting the stains out of your husband’s shirts in the 50s, or what the best snack to buy your kids are today; it’s always about aspirational futures.

However, empowerment advertising – ‘femvertising’ – isn’t the same. It’s selling a story that it’s actively inviting women to participate in; not an ideal. Instead of saying ‘this is what you need to buy to be perfect’, these campaigns say ‘you’re already perfect, so come and join in!’ It’s about saying you can do it, not you should do it.

Then there’s the alternative. An industry that ignores feminism and continues depicting women in the home or, worse, objectifying them. It must be better to have an advertising industry aware of feminism and recognising it as a trend even if it’s only ultimately being used to drive sales. It must be better to put pressure on girls to be amazing than to conform to aesthetic or domestic ideals. And who’s to say that a girl Googling #thisgirlcan won’t stumble across genuinely powerful feminist literature like #heforshe.

My point in all this? Femvertising is patronising and driven by profit margins, but I’d rather someone feel empowered by ads than not at all. We haven’t gone too far, but the situation is far from perfect. The big problem is that it's all about women banding together and nothing about men; it's advertising masquerading as feminism. Where do we go from here? It would be nice to see a campaign successfully break down the barriers between male and female advertising.

Hayley Stovold, copywriter, Kolab

When it comes to ‘femvertising’, I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. I know a variety of women, all extremely successful in different ways, who all want different things from life – whether that’s being a stay at home mum or working a high-pressured job. But what all of the women I know have in common is that they want to be inspired, and so do I. An advert that inspires me, motivates me and challenges me to think differently will almost certainly resonate with me. Whilst sceptics might think brands are purely jumping on the ‘empowerment’ bandwagon to sell more products, I think modern advertising is also delivering something magical. Campaigns like This Girl Can and Real Beauty have captured the imagination of millions of women across the world. Adverts like this, although designed to sell a brand, are also creating conversation, challenging stereotypes and inspiring generations, which is surely a good thing.

Holly Redman, studio assistant, Studio Mashbo

As a young woman in today's society I constantly feel under pressure. Every day I feel under obligation to look good, post the best pictures and 'witty comments' on social media, or just to 'be a good laugh' when out with friends and meeting new people. For myself, as well as thousands of other young women, this results in inadequacy rearing its ugly head on a regular – if not daily – basis. Due to these constant struggles and pressures I can't help but think that female empowerment, particularly in the mass media, simply cannot be taken too far.

William Leafe, digital marketing apprentice, Strawberry

The painting of perfection and happiness is at an unattainable level, though set in a believable, domestic and utterly relatable environment, causing personal comparisons, and ultimately, ruined self-confidence. This is not just an issue with marketing directed at females, but also increasingly at men. Presenting a stereotype or expectation of how anyone should look is a cruel, harmful and nonsensical strategy, irrespective of gender.

Perhaps the most unnerving element of the newfound culture to present headstrong, powerful women is the patronising aspect of such a message. The mere fact that this even needs to be emphasized; that women can achieve great things, is an incredibly demeaning thing. This suggests that there is, or has been, doubt about whether they could hold positions of power - but that they now can or are being ‘allowed to’. This is not only inherently sexist, but also a concept which totally backfires. Women don’t need to be told that they can lead powerful lives - they can. Men aren’t told that. The very thing this new culture pretends to combat is in fact what feeds it.

Laura Varley, brand journalist, Vertical Leap

I don’t understand how we could go ‘too far’. ‘Empowering’ women (or simply treating them as equals) could never be a bad thing, and to be honest, I think the empowering ads are still few and far between. We still see sexist adverts where women are used to sell a product; we’re still told that only women can be parents, or do the cleaning.

There are a few exceptions of course, the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is fantastic and a great way to dispel the myth that being like a girl is a bad thing. One ad campaign isn’t going to change the world overnight though, we need more. There still aren’t enough women going into STEM jobs or training because they are told those are ‘men’s jobs’, as a result, the UK has a huge skills gap problem, and women end up in lower-paid, lower-skilled roles. Advertising isn’t the soul root of this problem, or the other issues caused by sexism, but does play a big role in how the world sees women. It’s a huge responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly.

Advertisers who continue to portray women as walking stereotypes are increasingly going to alienate their audiences. Good riddance to them, I say.

Georgia Zervudachi, planner, Gravity Thinking

The empowerment conversation needed to happen, and I am very glad that it has. However, in the social space, where trends rise and fall at an exponential rate, a saturation point may have been reached. I don’t need my razor to tell me that I’m more than just what one person labels me, my sanitary pads have already challenged a phrase that I casually used to use, made me reconsider female stereotypes and fired me up to challenge them. The bar has been set pretty high, and unless you are challenging my perceptions or offering me a new perspective that relates to both me and your brand/ethos/product, it feels like you are jumping on a band wagon.

The narrative needs to shift. We can hero the many millions of fabulous women who have achieved great things and messages of empowerment, but that has almost become an easy cop out. What about the hub and the hygiene? We need to normalise and reflect the reality of ordinary women and girls. Why should they be targeted as such just because that is how it has always been? GoldieBox countered this brilliantly - why shouldn’t a group of girls be playing with tools? It’s not saying "YOU CAN DO IT", it’s shifting to “Why shouldn’t/aren’t you doing this, its totally normal and really not a big deal.”

Ultimately, the question needs to stop being "What do women want?", and instead be “What do people want?" We have access to much better data than just age and gender, and people expect more and more from advertising. There are plenty of women who don’t want children and plenty of men who just want to feel special. Feminism is essentially about equality and that is what needs to be reflected.

Justine Wright, managing director, Cuckoo Design

Yes - we have gone too far, there a constant conversation about whether we stay at home, whether we work, can we have both, etc. etc. But when do you ever hear the same about men? NEVER. It should be a given that women deserve and can do as well if not better than men, so we should stop going on about how great we are because doing so actually undermines us as professionals. It is an over worked topic within advertising, and quite frankly it is a little silly.

Holly Kerrigan, integrated account manager, RBH

The key to ‘femvertising’ is not about empowering women but about entrusting them with your brand and enabling them to spread the word in a way that works for them, sharing their own truth in relation to your product or service, rather than dictating how it is portrayed. What one woman takes from your brand and how she presents it is likely to be very different to the next, rather than conforming to a mould or stereotype, this approach creates broader appeal which can only be a good thing for advertisers.

The power of social media in femvertising should not be underestimated but it has to involve more than just talking to women or even engaging with them, it is about inviting them into a community and making them feel like they are an extension of your brand. Once they feel this they will do the job of femvertising for you as the best ambassadors you will find.

Alexandra Waring, junior account manager, Cult LDN

There’s no denying that Femvertising is a fertile market, with women now accounting for over 85% of all consumer purchases. But is it all it's really cracked up to be?

Recent campaigns such as Protein World’s flippant ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad prove that this is a contentious issue, as it won itself 70,000 signatures on a petition against the campaign on change.org. A virtuoso brand troll, it outraged female audiences across the UK, demonstrating that anti-feminist campaigns not only bring women together, but can also gain reach thanks to the offence they cause amongst their target audience.

As disingenuous as it may be to rely on feminism as a medium for selling product, it is infinitely preferable to the backward advertising of yesteryear. Creating forward thinking messaging that bursts open traditional stereotypes is having an increasingly positive effect not just for brands but for women and girls as well. If a brand can inspire and empower their target demographic, then doesn’t that impact on social behaviours and attitudes towards them? After all, adding a simple tagline at the end of a progressive campaign is a very small price to pay for brands to fund positive messages.

The question then, for advertisers is not, ‘Have we gone too far?’ but, ’How can we make this go further to inspire social change?’.

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Naomi Taylor

Naomi Taylor is editorial account manager at The Drum Network, covering members' news, insights and publications.

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