The stereotypical portrayal of women as either the “organising mum” or the “sexy girl” continues to prevail across Asian advertising, said speakers from Cheil, fresh off the stage at Cannes Lions from a panel titled “Awaken the Lioness: The Battle Front of Asian Women”.
“Every year you’ll have one movie or one TV show or three campaigns out of hundreds that are produced that will probably be progressive,” said Atika Malik, chief operation officer at Cheil India. “But a large volume of the work produced continues to [enforce stereotypes].”
“Lazy stereotyping” is partly to blame, she said: “It’s so easy to shortcode something by saying ok, here is the mum, she’s cleaning. This is the boy, he’s the sportsman…”
China will have less and less tolerance for this kind of negative suppression of women and any brands that do not respect the opinion of women will directly impact the sales — Pully Chau, group CEO of Cheil Greater China
Another reason might be a lack of female creatives in advertising but, Malik pointed out, it shouldn’t need female creatives for the industry to start portraying more progressive depictions of women. “Popular culture is so much all around us. If we don’t start to create that work, as men and women, we will not be able to subliminally influence the millions out there. Whether you are male or female, it doesn’t matter.”
Her fellow panellists agreed that finding examples of work they liked, that featured women from their home markets of South Korea and China, remains a challenge. “People want to make changes, but it’s slow,” said Kate Hyewon Oh, chief creative officer of Cheil Worldwide HQ, who discussed the South Korea market. She revealed the damning statistic that 97.9% of people on boards in publicly traded companies in South Korea are men.
China was little better in this regard, with 90.6% of board members being men. Pully Chau, group CEO of Cheil Greater China, said there were also “so many negative examples” of portrayals of women in advertising in the past few years that it had been hard to find many positive work to show to the audience.
People are starting to speak out more against for lazy or offensive stereotypes, however, she continued. Chau gave the example of an Audi ad in China from 2017 (below) that compared women to used cars, provoking a tide of negativity and forcing the brand to pull the ad after two weeks. “China will have less and less tolerance for this kind of negative suppression of women and any brands that do not respect the opinion of women will directly impact the sales,” she said. “Sometimes the advertisers can push further — when clients change their behaviour then our agency bosses will also change the behaviour too.”
The three leaders also debated the reasons why so very few women are reaching the top positions in companies particularly when, in China and South Korea at least, just as many women as men are now graduating from universities and entering the workforce (in India this figure remains lower, with around 25% of women entering the workforce).
“Mid-career dropout” is a huge part of the problem, said Malik. She credited a boss who had granted her an extended 11 months of maternity leave for stopping her quitting the industry at a critical time.
Women give up work when they marry or have children, agreed Hyewon Oh, which could lead commentators to suppose that they don’t want to continue work after this stage. That’s likely not the case for many women, said Malik. “I don’t think it is voluntary. The chances are, if you asked, well over 50% of those who’ve had to step back haven’t done it because they really want to. These are smart women, they’ve done well. I think it’s support. It’s organisation’s support, it’s companies being supportive, and it’s family support. How many times do you hear that a couple has had a baby and the guys step back?”
“Husbands being supportive is also very important,” agreed Chau.
The three acknowledged that women are vulnerable both to perceptions of “social norms” and to a fear that if they slacken off work, they might lose their standing to competitive men. Coincidentally, all three women realised they shared the experience of working right up until the day before they gave birth, something they had previously felt alone in doing. “I thought I was a monster,” said Chau.
In all three cases, there had been an important client visit or pitch right around the time they were due to have a baby, and they hadn’t wanted to pass up the opportunity. Malik even said she gave birth the night before a presentation, and still called her team the next day about adjustments to some of the slides.
Hyewon Oh, meanwhile, said she hadn’t watched to pass up the opportunity to pitch to an important client even though she was due very soon. “Once I get the chance, I grab it tightly,” she said. “Usually there are so many men waiting for my opportunity. After I finished my pitch, my main clients felt the fear because my belly was so big and I could not breathe well. The head of the client begged me to please sit down.” She finished the presentation and went to hospital that evening.
While this might sound extreme to some, Chau says it illustrates the extent of social pressure women face, and the lengths they feel they have to go to in order to “overcompensate, to make things better and to gain trust.”
Malik said her personal motto for herself and other women was “make it happen for yourself”. The panel audience responded with cheers to the three women’s call to “awaken the lioness” — “Asian women are no longer hiding in the shadows,” they said. “Let’s all come back next year with a campaign that awakens the lioness in our products and brands.”