If advertising won’t talk openly about menopause, it’ll continue to be scary and taboo
Adland needs to get real in its representation of menopause, writes Lucy Taylor, chief growth officer at MullenLowe Group UK.
The ‘Menopause Bus’ roadshow from This Morning and Boots / ITV
I’m going to start by saying that I am a woman who is yet to experience menopause. I am, however, a 40-year-old mother who works in advertising and is approaching this inevitable reality with some thoughts to share.
General conversations around how people experience menopause have begun to permeate mainstream media in recent years, but truly adequate awareness and education around this topic – long a taboo subject within society – are yet to filter through to advertising.
Recent research by Kantar found that 76% of women experiencing menopause or perimenopause don’t feel represented in ads at all, while 65% feel that brands don’t do enough to support them. Trans and non-binary people who menstruate are also neglected by the industry. This lack of accurate representation helps to perpetuate myths about menopause, so that it continues to be seen as scary and taboo.
Some companies are taking action to raise awareness, such as the ‘Menopause Bus’ roadshow from This Morning and Boots. But more needs to be done from an everyday perspective. The media we consume must reflect the variation in how people go through menopause truthfully. It also needs to reflect menopause full stop, because currently there is gross underrepresentation of an extremely common experience that will affect half the population in some way.
The problem with underrepresentation or misrepresentation (I’m not sure which is more problematic, to be honest) is that this continues to shape people’s experiences of menopause – particularly at work. While we’re undeniably more aware of it than ever before and making bigger strides to readdress the balance than ever before, we do still live in a world that was created by and for men – especially in the workplace.
Radical action needs to be taken here to ensure that antiquated misconceptions around the impact of menopause do not inhibit gender equality for all, regardless of age. We can’t be afraid of upsetting the apple cart. Good intentions won’t drive progress; action is needed to generate real change.
Like many taboos that are traditionally swept under the rug, menopause needs to be discussed in order to become normalized. There are currently 38 recognized symptoms of menopause, with menstruators experiencing an average of seven of these over a period that can last between four and 12 years. There is no prescribed ’menopause experience’ and not everyone ends up with hot flushes and mood swings.
Menopause and ageism
Why are menopause and ageism so underrepresented in media though? Squeamishness is, of course, one issue, but so is the fact that, because the experience is so varied, it can make it hard to represent those going through menopause in a way that feels authentic and nuanced. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though.
Another problem is the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of older people in general. Over-55s already make up 47% of the population and by 2040 will account for 63% of the national spending power.
And yet, representation of this group in the media is horrifyingly scarce. According to research conducted by Channel 4, just 12% of advertisements feature someone over 50 in a lead role. And when an older person does appear on screen, they often act as the butt of a joke. This is especially true of older women, with the treatment of people experiencing menopause viewed through a comedic lens even in otherwise serious shows.
Why we need to look inward
How do we go about changing this? The creative industries need to scrutinize their own demographic make-up and consider how this could contribute to the problem.
Currently, just 5.1% of people working in agencies are aged 51-60 – a statistic so shocking that our own Nicky Bullard, chief creative officer of Mullenlowe Group, took to the stage at Cannes wearing a ‘Best Before’ sticker highlighting the date of her 50th birthday to show that across much of adland, she’d have been considered ’finished’ three years ago.
We also need to come to terms with the fact that menopause is not something short and sweet. It can drag on for a decade or more and its symptoms can be unpredictable. But if people are experiencing this for 20% of their working lives – often the 20% when they are at the peak of their career – then any organization that values its employees needs to work out how best to provide support.
We’re getting better at talking, but we need concrete action
As advertising begins to open up and engage in more nuanced discourses – and let’s not take away credit for the representation the industry has already achieved – it raises important questions over how to represent groups traditionally judged for their age and gender.
Advertising must do more to avoid stereotypes. Segmenting by attitude and approaching consumers based on their personal preferences can help to improve experiences across the board.
Take Tena and AMV BBDO’s two-minute film, ‘The Last Lonely Menopause’, which won Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award this year. The film shows a mother and daughter in conversation, discussing menopause and puberty and the parallels between the two.
This open dialogue is an example of how we can advertise based on segmentation by attitude, with young and old coming together to share experiences across the age divide. It also provides a clear message to retailers that they need not pass over menopause in the name of good taste or creativity.
Simply put, brands and retailers play a huge role in directing people to relevant information and products – they need to be proud and embrace this important role.
Organizations leading the way
Some of the retail industry is moving in the right direction, such as Boots and Asda which have rechristened their ’feminine hygiene’ aisles as period products, but there is still significant work to be done. Women don’t need to be lionized or treated as superheroes, but they do need retailers to take their issues seriously and treat them like people.
These changes need to take place behind the cameras – and in our offices too. Channel 4 prides itself on being inclusive and, to this aim, has recently introduced new menopause and miscarriage policies.
Similarly, Co-Op’s new Menopause Support Policy urges workers to speak openly about any symptoms that might impact their ability to work and recognizes the issue as one that affects a multitude of people, regardless of age or gender. Commitments are also in place to help those experiencing premenopause, perimenopause and menopause so that no one suffers in silence.
Of course, representation and shifts in language are the first steps we have to take in destigmatizing menopause and older women – and, indeed, people in general. This can be a scary time and is somewhat made worse by a shared cultural idea of women losing their value when their reproductive years end.
Instead of being liberated by this to contribute to society without the burden of childbearing (as men do), we’re conditioned to see it as the end of both our usefulness and our attractiveness. Advertising should play a major role in challenging this, but we won’t achieve change simply by asking everyone to pity poor women with hot flushes and brain fog.
We need both more nuanced and more empowered portrayals.
Lucy Taylor is chief growth officer at MullenLowe Group UK.