Writing this article and preparing a short presentation to the agency to celebrate International Women’s Day, a co-worker and I reflected on some historic advertising and how it portrayed women. One ad labeled women ‘dumb but beautiful’ for forgetting to use deodorant, whilst another insinuated ‘the more a woman cleans, the cuter she looks’. This work was published in the same decade that a small but vocal group of women in the Garment District of New York City were protesting low wages in 1908. That day in 1908 was the beginning of International Women’s Day, which was officially observed by the United Nations on March 8, 1975.
Fast forward to October 2014, again in New York City, where a panel at AdWeek was dedicated to the idea of ‘femvertising’. For those of you who haven’t had your Facebook feed flooded by the plethora of pro-female ads launched in the last 12 months, ‘femvertising’ has been defined as “advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls.” Think most Dove work, #LikeAGirl, Sheryl Sandberg’s #BanBossy, Pantene’s #WhipIt, and the list goes on. (The rise in femvertising also shows us that every brand has a hashtag.)
The panel coincided with the release of research from SheKnows, arguing the case for femvertising with impressive stats like ‘52 per cent of women have bought products from a brand because they like the way women are portrayed in their ads’.
The panel, and subsequent conversations, generated a lot of discussion (some of which was heated) around the idea of ‘femvertising’. Those conversations included brands capitalizing on issues such as gender equality and feminism to make money, and question around the authenticity of the message when the agencies developing the ads themselves are guilty of male dominated workplaces.
Regardless of what side of the fence you stand on or what you believe about ‘femvertising’, it should be acknowledged that at least it’s got people talking, and at scale, about various gender related issues—equality of the sexes, stereotypes and importantly, the way that we, as agencies, portray women in advertising. It has even forced people to reflect on their own point of view, and if they didn’t have one already, develop one.
Brands and the type of advertising we all aspire to have long been agents of cultural change (some more than others) and I am hopeful and inspired by the amount of brands that are using their budgets and media spend to breakdown stereotypes or celebrate the many qualities of women….even if it is to ultimately sell more products, the message is still out there causing people to stop and think.
Last year, Getty worked with the Lean In Foundation to develop the ‘Lean In Collection’, ‘a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them’. Given 90 per cent of Chinese women think that advertising usually depicts women as men would like to see them; rather than as they really are, this is a huge step in the right direction.
High-end fashion house Celine bucked the trend in 2014 and used 80-year-old American author Joan Didion as the face of the label, valuing grace and brains over traditional (and usually unattainable) beauty standards.
I can’t talk about the positive portrayal of women without mentioning ‘#LikeAGirl’ by Always. It’s been used in countless meetings and case studies I am sure, but like the #BanBossy ad (I was lucky enough to work on this whilst at BBDO New York) it targets young girls, hopefully early enough before they are conditioned to value words like ‘pretty’ over ‘intelligent’ and ‘kind’. It also reminds us as adults that every word we use perpetuates or challenges an existing stereotype.
As a woman in advertising, who is celebrating International Woman’s Day with an entire agency and reflecting on how far we’ve come (and how far we still have to go), I urge brands to stand for something great, and continue to build on the conversation that is being sparked, so that in 20 years’ time, women, together with men, can look back and reflect on how far they’ve come.
Rebecca Nadilo is planning director at BBDO Singapore