If the history of advertising has been built on selling consumers hope in a jar, its future resides not in empty promises but empowering people to be comfortable in their own skins.
For decades, the marketing industry has been guilty of inciting an ongoing and profoundly unfulfilling form of warfare. Female consumers are under siege, with brands urging them to do battle against themselves.
Women are encouraged to "fight" the signs of ageing, as if growing old is a source of shame, not one of life’s greatest privileges. Style is ageless yet, time and again, advertising perpetuates the myth it is predicated on youth.
Bodies are different – they need designs and products to flatter them – but marketing delivers constant messages that we should flatten, hide and augment. It is an ironed-out, glossy, yet dead-eyed version of femininity, underpinned by a constant cycle of anxiety, and a marketing message that many consumers simply aren’t buying.
It is well over a decade since Dove launched its genre-defying "Campaign for real beauty", but the fact remains that in mainstream marketing a "real woman" is not a statement of fact, but a marketing gimmick. The majority of marketing messages fall short of representing the diversity, the vulnerability, the highs and lows and messy reality of women’s lives.
The message to consumers not represented in advertising is clear: if brands don’t see you, how can they possibly hear you? Brands are failing to be relevant to consumers, something they routinely ignore.
With a mainstream marketing narrative that ignores or berates them, women have increasingly turned to social-media platforms to write their own stories. It is an age of influence that has ushered in a new wave of body positivity. This true reflection of the diversity of society has been more revolutionary than any given media platform or technology.
Of course, this social revolution has also brought its own challenges: new platforms for hatred and a seemingly insurmountable crisis of brand safety. But it has also engendered a profound shift in how consumers view themselves and the world around them.
By simply reflecting life as it is – whether that’s squeezing into skinny jeans in a badly lit changing room, or seeking the solace of strangers on the internet at 4am while breastfeeding a newborn – social platforms are where consumers feel acknowledged, recognised and heard.
Aspiration will always have a role in marketing, but what constitutes aspiration is changing fundamentally. Brands fixated on outdated notions of women must beware of alienating consumers, or even ignoring their existence. The white, Western model of feminine perfection, favoured by advertisers of the past, has been founded on a joyless battle. A life of jobs to be done, not experiences to be had. It is a marketing model based almost entirely on fear, with simply being yourself perhaps constituting the greatest fear of all.
Consumers are increasingly mindful of the impact their digital and media diet is having on their mental wellbeing. Advertising that triggers consumers’ anxiety and perpetuates those stereotypes that have a negative impact on self-esteem has no place in modern marketing
Nicola Kemp is the trends editor at Campaign.