So far in 2021, women rule. From Kamala Harris and Amanda Gorman to Michaela Coel and Professor Sarah Gilbert, women have been busy setting the political, cultural and vaccination agenda with a confidence built on the experiences, drive and opportunities that have brought them this far.
We can be pretty sure that their mindset has very little (in fact nothing) to do with their choice of deodorant or shampoo, yet still many beauty advertisers persist in peddling the idea that, for women at least, confidence comes in a can.
Women have been told for many years how to look—mostly beautiful to attract men—but now it seems sexism is sneaking in again, and the naughty advertisers are starting to tell women how they should feel.
As an industry, we have a duty of care to stop this before we bombard women with “how to feel” messages. So many brands want to “empower” women and give them confidence: whether it’s shampoo, deodorant, female grooming or razors, 99% of the briefs I have seen say that the purpose of the product is to make women more “confident”.
Not “sexy” or “strong,” but “confident”. Men, meanwhile, will be given a rationale for buying a brand, a concrete reason to spray their pits in "brand bloke". It might last two-and-a-half times longer, or it might just make you more manly or more woke, but your confidence as a man is a given, while the assumption is that a woman’s confidence is so closely tied to her physical appearance that one purchase or one application will do it.
Of course, there are brands, such as Bodyform and Sport England, that are breaking taboos, but there are too many more that aren’t. I have been in far too many briefings where the “C” word has been bandied around and I am sat there thinking, “I don’t get it.” Maybe it’s just me? Maybe I’m not very good at being a woman? Maybe I’m un-empowerable?
But the other way of looking at this is that it’s total bullshit, and that – even at the briefing stage – stereotypes are still being peddled. Look at the recent government “Stay at home” ad, which revealed a catalogue of unmitigated misogynist beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home, probably because she’s not bought herself the confidence to venture out into the world.
I’ve never sat in a briefing in which a brand is claiming to give a man more confidence.
Casting is often accused of playing into stereotypes, but I put it to you that it usually starts earlier, with a certain type of brief.
We need to view women as the multidimensional beings that they are. How about some rationale, some facts? I’m confident our brains can take it. I can’t be alone in looking beyond my mascara in search of self-esteem, or delving deeper than my moisturiser in a bid for confidence-boosting authenticity. I don’t want to be empowered, and I don’t need a brand to tell me that it’s OK to feel OK about my body, even though it’s not “perfect”.
For anyone who binged Schitt’s Creek on Netflix (and if you haven’t, may I implore you to), the genius was in the writers’ portrayal of the gay characters not as a stereotype or a “problem” that needed solving, but simply as people living the normal ups and downs experienced by all the characters in the series.
A brief that includes “confidence” or any other stereotypical bullshit should set alarm bells ringing, and we all need to summon the confidence to question it. If we don’t, we’ll continue to see sexist work like the government was trying to peddle at us, and we will be up shit’s creek as an industry.
Sue Higgs is joint executive creative director at Dentsumcgarrybowen