London women feel sexualised and ignored by brands, so TfL is offering free ads to drive change

Despite a pivot in strategy, American Apparel was among the brands called out by respondents for airing 'sexist' ads in London

Women in London feel ignored, sexualised and under-represented by advertisers, so City Hall and Transport for London (TfL) have launched a competition inviting brands to create ads that reflect the capital in all its glorious diversity.

'The Women We See' contest will give advertisers the chance to pitch for £500,000 worth of free digital and out-of-home (OOH) ad space across London’s transport network – be it on the tube, buses or bus stops.

To be in with a chance of winning, marketers or their creative agencies have to come up with campaigns that will challenge gender stereotypes and better reflect the diversity of women in the city. TfL are looking for brands to represent BAME women, those with disabilities, members of the LGBT community and those from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

The initiative launches amid fresh research qualitative and quantitive research commissioned by City Hall and carried out by University College London. After initial one-to-ones with women, researchers then questioned 2,000 respondents from both sexes and found that just 26% of women felt ads in London were relevant to them.

Those who felt the least represented were women over the age of 55, with 55% of this group saying they felt invisible to advertisers.

The competition will be open for entries from now until Monday 22 October 2018, with the winning creative set to run early next year. It's being sponsored by OOH providers Exterion Media and JCDecaux, and pitches will be judged by a cross-section of industry luminaries.

In addition to the winner, two other shortlisted brands will be gifted £50,000 in digital space across TfL’s infrastructure – which claims to facilitate around 31m journeys each day.

The project is part of a wider year-long women's equality campaign from London mayor Sadiq Khan, 'Behind Every Great City', which includes a series of events to mark the centenary of some women winning the right to vote in the UK.

'A sensible place to start'

In carrying out its research, City Hall found that 51% of women said their body size wasn’t represented in ads they had seen in and around London, while a further 68% felt women were too often shown in revealing clothes.

For all respondents, the sexualisation of both women and men was given as the top answer as to why they found ads to be ‘inaccurate and unacceptable’.

As well as feeling ignored and sexualised by brands, women also felt under-represented with less than one in four (22%) saying they felt ads in the capital were culturally diverse. For black women, sexualised imagery was condemned as something that contributed to stereotypes rather than a form of positive representation.

"We want to move away from those tired gender stereotypes we see in advertsising," Heidi Alexander, London's deputy mayor for transport, told The Drum.

"We want to see women in all of their diversity – that might mean women from different ethnic minorities, different ages, different faith groups and so this is the first of it's kind, in terms of a competition using the TfL advertising space.

"This feels like a sensible place for us to start, and we'll see that comes out of it," she added.

Alexander said the Mayor's office wants to keep the momentum going once the competition is over by working with the industry to ensure ads appearing across the capital weren't only "impactful with good commercial outcomes for advertisers, but also reflective of the great diversity of London."

Overwhelmingly this study found that Londoners of both sexes loved the diversity of people in the city.

Indeed, participants listed the diversity of people and cultures as their second favourite aspect about London, but overall just 27% of Londoners said that advertising in the city was relevant to them.

Today’s move follows on from mayor Khan banning ads across the TfL network which were seen to be promoting an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape back in 2016.

Khan’s motion was spurred by a series of controversial ads from diet supplement company Protein World (above) which asked commuters if they were ‘beach body ready?’ alongside the image of a slim model wearing a bikini.

Since the ban, TfL has also worked with City Hal to establish the Advertising Steering Group, which monitors the transport network's approach to branded content and keeps its policies under regular review.

The play to encourage advertisers to better depict different types of women in their campaigns comes amid a wider review on gender stereotyping rules from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with a fresh series of guidelines being announced for advertisers across the UK earlier this year.

OOH ads 'nonconsensual'

While the research showed that women were generally dismayed with how they were portrayed by brands, it also revealed that advertising across London transport was rated the most positively of all channels in terms of the quality, diversity and portrayal of different audiences – with only 7% of Londoners stating that they found advertising on transport ‘problematic’ compared to online ads which were called out by 35% of respondents.

The findings of the exercise have been bundled together in a report, with research led by professor Jessica Ringrose and Dr Kaitlyn Regehr.

The methodology was unique in that it collected the stories of 16 women aged 21-65 and 22 teenagers aged 14-16, before polling some 2,000 Londoners to explore their experiences of advertising across London.

The duo told The Drum that intersectionality was key, and that they literally sat on tube and bus journeys with women of all backgrounds, ages and abilities to chronicle their experiences of branded content on their travels.

"What we looked at was the images themselves but also how women operated in relationship to the images," said Ringrose.

"What we were interested to find is that advertising in public space is nonconsensual. You don't have the ability to turn it off or flip it over and so it operates differently to advertising in a private space on personal devices and that's why this project is so significant."

Despite a pivot in strategy, American Apparel was highlighted by one Londonder as a brand that sexualised women in the report.

A second strand of research conducted focus group interviews with 22 teen girls aged 14-16 in two London schools in diverse postcodes on their views towards advertisements.

Subsequently, the girls worked in groups to create art collages (two per school) using advertising content and wrote messages about what they thought was problematic and what they would like to see done differently. Advertisers such as Boohoo.com were highlighted as perpetrating stereotypes by the girls.

TfL and City Hall's competition is similar to Channel 4's 'Superhumans Wanted' contest which offers advertisers £1m worth of free airtime in return for creating ads which improve diversity for the broadcaster.

So far, Mars and Volvo have been crowned winners for producing creative centered around disability and hidden disability respectively.

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