For almost the whole of its history, marketing has been a largely man-made business. Invented by men; employed by businesses run by men; played out in agencies founded by men; generated by creative teams made up of men; signed off by male creative directors; shot by male directors and photographers; appearing in media owned and edited by men.
Unsurprisingly and as a result, for most of its history, most marketing and advertising has been the product of men looking at women. Categories were defined on gendered lines. The major sectors – to do with action, adventure, agency, machines, systems, finance and the world at large – were for men. The (less serious) categories to do with appearance, the domestic, the supportive and the family were for women.
Female audiences were described in male-pleasing terms – the adorable little angel; the hot sexy chick; the perfect mom juggling everyone else’s needs; the absent older woman. Propositions centred largely on perfection (and so improvement): the flawless appearance, the ideal home, the whiter wash, the younger skin, the happy family.
Women were cast in supportive roles and presented in ways that showed them as passive, pleasing on the eye, always smiling and often vacant and credulous. The gaze of the camera was all too frequently male, and the tone of the brand was almost always to tell – to explain to women what good looked like. In all of it, the sexism was pretty obvious, and the biases – once you started looking for them – clear to see.
(Always "Like a girl" by Leo Burnett)
But then, over the course of more recent history, as fourth-wave feminism rolled in and brands like Dove and Always rode – and, to some not inconsiderable extent, drove – the wave, the industry became much more conscious of its incompetence, and tried to correct for its biases and boxes. Strong became the new pretty; outsized models became big; overtly "diverse" tick-boxes were added to casting briefs; obvious stereotyping was called out by Unilever, then The Unstereotype Alliance, and then the ASA. Instead of telling women how to be perfect, brands increasingly told women how to be feminist: will what you want. You be you. Be brave.
And while it has become fashionable to be cynical about all that go girl hash-taggery and the dreaded words "fempowerment" and "femvertising", there’s no doubt that these narratives did create some proper forward movement for brands and for women. Dove genuinely changed understanding of beauty norms; Always ushered in a whole era of progressive communications around "feminine hygiene" (or period care as we now call it); Nike powered the rise in interest in female sport; "This girl can" was (and is) all-round wonderful. All of them gave birth to campaigns like Frida Mom and Tommy Tippee that are receiving plaudits today.
However, it would not be true to say that these developments have properly solved the problem of man-made biases being hard-wired into the practices of marketing, or that they will continue to provide a long-term platform for brands to build from. In fact, our research shows that while lots of progress has happened, a lot remains the same. Eighty-five per cent of ads featuring women feature women who are conventionally attractive; in over a quarter of the ads we looked at women were still being presented in unreconstructed "male gaze" poses. What’s more – and in some ways is worse – marketing is still presenting women as vacant and dumb: when we ask women what characteristics define them most they put "sense of humour" and "intelligence" as two of the top three, yet in only 3% of ads are women actually being funny and in only 3% of ads are women shown doing something that requires intelligence of any kind.
In addition, we’re seeing a lot of pretty token "consciously competent" stuff at play. The BAME woman added to the white line-up to tick the box but not take the part; the older woman occasionally featured but only if she looks much more youthful and beautiful than her age; the outsized model now included but only for her "look at her!" exceptionalism.
And we also see a lot of approaches that appear on the surface and in the text to do the right things but in practice and in the subtext play out the same old tropes: obvious pink replaced with flowers and pastel patterns "for her" (with bold strong colours reserved "for him"); weight-loss described as wellness or anti-aging positioned as "age-less". Worse of all, perhaps, is the now widely employed practice of telling women that they need to change their behaviour: having once told women how they needed to fix their bodies, brands have now moved on to telling women how they need to fix their attitudes – be strong, be bold, don’t be sorry.
So a new model for female brands and communications is needed – one that doesn’t employ the old-style “male gaze” but also avoids what the journalist Lili Loofbourow brilliantly describes as “the male glance”: the tendency, seen in so much femvertising, to look fleetingly but not deeply, and to view but not to really read or understand. Fortunately, there is a new model emerging particularly in the direct to consumer space that can point the way to a new answer: brands created by women (often for other women). These “women-made” brands pull of the trick of "unconscious competence" when it comes to marketing to women – and they tend to be characterised by a pronounced set of behaviours that set them apart from traditional brands.
First off, they don’t define their audience in relation to men but on their own terms – often developing propositions out of the notion of independence from male-pleasing ideals. Whitney Wolfe created Bumble as “the first dating app where women call the shots”; Helene Morris developed Lonely Label “for women who wear lingerie as a love letter to themselves”; Noura Sakkijha set up the jewellery brand Mejuri around the assertion “buy yourself the damn diamonds”.
Second – even, and perhaps especially, in categories concerned with beauty or self-expression – they tend to be strongly practical in terms of their product and service offer, wanting to sort things out on behalf of the audience rather than dress or sex things up in an effort to sell. Alex Waldman and Polina Veksler set up Universal Standard as “the most inclusive clothing line ever” by creating a huge range of sizes rather than the one (small) size fits all approaches of traditional brands. Third Love was established by Heidi Zak to “do bras differently. No discomfort. No dressing rooms. No drama. Just insanely comfortable bras designed to fit perfectly”. Profoundly aggravated by the tendency of financial services brands to treat women as mindless splurgers, Anne Boden created Starling with the intention of being “the most helpful bank ever”. Knix, Thinx, Dear Kate and Ruby Love are all female-made brands in the period-care space that provide better and more practical products.
Third, they are constructive rather than critical. They treat beauty and fashion as acts of creative self-expression, not a means of covering up or blending in. So Pat McGrath Labs is like a one woman art show featuring make-up. Emily Weiss’s Glossier is always positive and light – both visually and verbally – without any of the angst or implicit criticism evident in so much beauty marketing.
(Frida Mom "Stream of lactation" by Mekanism)
Fourth – and as an extension and expression of the rejection of perfectionist narratives – they keep it real. And this goes way beyond the relatively easy answer of just "showing real women". They talk in ways that reflect how women see themselves. In our research, women say intelligence, sense of humour, and relationship with family are the three characteristics that most define them. Women-made brands talk to their audience in that way. As Heidi Zak has it: “Let’s listen to women. Let’s respect their intelligence. Let’s exceed their expectations. Let women define themselves.” An important part of that respect is not dumbing things down or pretending all is bright and breezy when it isn’t: Frida Mom shows the reality of breastfeeding; the Lonely Girls Project shows women wearing underwear just as they are. Scary Mommy presents motherhood as the hard, funny, rewarding, troubling, heartening, difficult, joyful thing that it is.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these brands actually practise what they preach when it comes to supporting women as employees and as part of the supply chain. One of the most obnoxious tendencies in marketing to women in the past has been the widespread practice of talking a good game when it comes to the showy ad or the feminist positioning, but being much less concerned when it comes to the worth of women working in or with the business. Brands like The Girlfriend Collective demonstrate what can be achieved when companies put their female-supporting rhetoric into practice by giving their female workers proper value and respect.
Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts are the authors of Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It.