Will ads ever stop patronizing women?

The Mad Men called a pair of women sharing a scene of domestic bliss for advertising purposes "two c's in a kitchen"

The unexpurgated version of this saying is, of course, too indecent to bear repetition in polite company. Today, it is no more than a throwback to the political incorrectness of a bygone age. At best, it is patronizing; at worst, it is a deeply offensive commentary on the depiction of women by advertisers.

But if the language has changed, have the underlying attitudes to the portrayal of women as either sex objects or mothers changed along with it?

Research by Unilever suggests that old habits are dying hard. Having analyzed 1,000 ads from around the world, it found that half featured women in very traditional ways. Ads portraying them as funny, intelligent or as leaders were in a tiny minority.

The findings have certainly had a cathartic effect on the company, which has vowed to replace one-dimensional women from its advertising with authentic, aspirational ones. Keith Weed, Unilever’s global marketing chief, believes the change will lead to more effective advertising – "This is an economic issue," he insists – but not everybody is convinced.

Matt McDowell, Toshiba’s European marketing director, says: "The fact Unilever has waited until 2016 to acknowledge this might suggest it has deeper-running issues to confront. Most of us had these conversations in the 1990s, and we’ve moved on."

For the most part, though, change has been painfully slow. As long ago as 1994, Warc published research suggesting advertisers should take a more egalitarian approach but nothing much came of it.

Jane Cunningham, co-founder of PrettyLittleHead, the consultancy that worked with Unilever on the research project, is not surprised. "It doesn’t change because of an unconscious bias within companies," she suggests. "There are advertising formulas for certain categories that are believed to work and a feeling that it would be too risky to change them.

"At the same time, there has been a failure to investigate and acknowledge what is changing and to recognize that there is an alternative world evolving."

Cunningham dismisses the suggestion that ditching female stereotypes from ads is fine in theory but more difficult in practice because of what may be a very short time in which to get a message across.

"Men are not stereotyped in the way that women are," she argues. "Of course, there are male stereotypes in ads but men are generally depicted in a much more multidimensional way. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be the case for women."

Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest the tide is turning, albeit slowly. Belinda Parmar, chief executive of advocacy agency Lady Geek, cites Leo Burnett’s "#LikeAGirl" campaign for Procter & Gamble brand Always as an example of what she calls "pockets of enthusiasm" for change. But she adds: "These remain the exception rather than the rule."

Cunningham draws optimism from what she sees as significant moves by car-makers and financial services companies over the past two years towards a more gender-equal approach. But while more brands challenge previously accepted norms, the paucity of female creative directors remains what she calls "a real handbrake on progress."


Charles Vallance 

Chairman and founding partner, VCCP

"It’s only difficult to avoid stereotyping women if you’re doing conventional creative work. We’ve just made a new easyJet ad featuring a woman who is anything but conventional. Producing work that doesn’t reflect most of the population is lazy. And the Unilever research suggests there’s an awful lot of lazy work being done.

"That said, the situation is improving and, within a generation, this will be a non-issue in the UK. Not only are today’s young people less hung up about gender but there are now more female graduates than men. And while a lot of key decision-makers are still men, that’s going to change."


Kate Stanners 

Global chief creative officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

"What Unilever is doing is brilliant, and we all fully support the move; it’s what our client  Procter & Gamble has been doing too. 

"In the past, it was easier to cast women in conventional roles, but that’s no longer acceptable. The time has come for us to connect properly with them.

"Things are improving but we have a long way to go. How many car ads do we see in which men are in the driving seat and the woman just a passenger? And there are still too many gratuitous displays of the female form."


Belinda Parmar 

Chief executive, Lady Geek

"It’s perfectly possible to portray women more authentically in ads and, if anybody can do it, then it has to be Unilever chief executive Paul Polman given the single-minded way he has set about making the world a better place.

"But things have to change before this can happen, not least in the numbers of women in agency creative departments, where people talk about just 3% of creative directors being female. 

"But we shouldn’t just focus on women. There’s a much broader issue of how an ad industry that’s still broadly white and middle class achieves greater empathy with consumers."


Jonathan Mildenhall

Chief marketing officer, Airbnb

"This is a really interesting challenge for advertisers. With video content being reduced in length to 20 or 15 seconds, you need messages that people will understand immediately.

"I would expect Unilever to still feature the family’s primary carer – be that a man or a woman – to reach core audiences. But it will have a less clichéd approach to casting and people featured in its ads will become increasingly surprising.

"Back in 2002, women would watch 'Sex in the City,' then a commercial break that looked 100 years out of date. The content is still more attractive than the marketing around it."

This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.

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