Why advertising is still getting women wrong

About the event

A high-profile panel at Oxford Saïd discussed empowerment, objectification, and what women want.

From #LikeAGirl to #WomenGetTold, major brands have apparently decided that the way to a woman’s purse is through a little light feminism. But is that really what women want?

A panel discussion at Saïd Business School, part of the Inspiring Women series of events surrounding International Women’s Day 2019, revealed that there is a lot more to talking to female consumers than pandering to a slightly more progressive-looking stereotype. And brands are still not getting it right. According to a study by marketing insights company Kantar, a whopping 85% of women feel that film and advertising do a poor job of depicting real women.

Amy Cashman, co-CEO of Kantar Insights and author of the study, suggested in a presentation to the Oxford Saïd audience that the problem lay in a somewhat unsophisticated understanding of the concept of ‘empowerment.’

‘What sits beneath the idea of empowerment has a lot to do with how people feel about their own self-esteem,’ she said. ‘It is a very personal thing and highly nuanced. And despite all of the changes in society in terms of women’s roles and the way women are represented, our study showed that there are still fundamental differences in self esteem between men and women.’

Women on average reported lower self-esteem than men; and Millennial men formed the group with the highest levels of self-esteem. Where the study got really interesting, though, was in an investigation of the drivers of self-esteem and how they affect different groups.

Cashman described five factors that contribute to self-esteem:

Financial autonomy – being free to spend your money as you wish and feeling that you have the power to create your own wealth.

Freedom of thought and expression – having your views heard and respected by other people.

Social connections and networks having a network of people that you can rely upon.

Accessibility and visibility – seeing positive role models you can relate to.

Sexual and bodily autonomy – feeling comfortable with and in control of your own body.

Accessibility and visibility turned out to be not very important for either men or women. Financial autonomy was a major contributor to self-esteem for men, perhaps a cultural hangover from their traditional role as breadwinner. Meanwhile, sexual and bodily autonomy played a much larger role in the self-esteem of women.

What sits beneath the idea of empowerment has a lot to do with how people feel about their own self-esteem. It is a very personal thing and highly nuanced.

Cashman reported that, as they broke the data down further, they could see generational differences and also major differences between people who already have high self-esteem and those who don’t. For example, financial autonomy bolsters the self-esteem of women who already have quite high self-esteem; social and network connections are more important for women with lower self-esteem. Millennial women are more likely to have sexual and bodily autonomy driving self-esteem; baby boomer women, however, are more likely to emphasise financial autonomy.

So what might be empowering for some women will not be empowering for all – and that makes a difference in how they respond to advertisements. Nike, for example, which features elite female athletes who are literally powerful and strong, did not come across as remotely empowering to women with low self-esteem, including those who might just be starting exercise.

What can brands do to get gender right? Using Kantar’s Hold Her Gaze exhibition of contemporary female archetypes as a provocation, the panel (Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing, Oxford Saïd; Philippa Snare, CMO EMEA, Facebook; Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO, Mumsnet and Gransnet; Bart Michels, UK Country Manager, Kantar; and Felipe Thomaz, Associate Professor of Marketing, Oxford Saïd) discussed the social and psychological impacts of marketing and its attendant responsibilities. How can marketing departments take that responsibility seriously but in a way that is also commercially viable?

Start with your own team

‘What proportions of men and women do you have in your marketing team and how involved are they in developing propositions?’ asked Philippa Snare. It’s not just about gender balance either. Kantar’s Hari Blanch-Bennett presented an advertisement by Rihanna’s beauty brand, Fenty, as an example of inclusivity — only for an audience member to explain that, as a woman of colour herself, she interpreted it as diminishing darker skin tones.

Know your brand and stay authentic

Pepsi’s tone-deaf advertisement with Kendall Jenner ‘co-opt[ed] the language of protest’ but inauthentically, said Andrew Stephen, and that is why there was a backlash (Pepsi apologised and cancelled the advertisement). Philippa Snare warned too of the dangers of ‘femvertising’: that is, ‘advertising with a feminist slant’, but employing distinctly unfeminist business practices, such as manufacturing in sweatshops in developing countries.

Know your customer and don’t generalise

Justine Roberts observed that research by Mumsnet had identified 66 ‘motherhood identities’ and that most mothers had six of them. But in advertising there seems to be only one type of mother – the stressed, endlessly multi-tasking ‘busy mum’. Given the amount of data that is available about customers, and data that they will willingly hand over if it means better service, there really is no excuse for relying on simple demographics or stereotypes.

Having said that, there are some large demographic segments that are simply being ignored. Roberts quoted statistics that suggest that only 8% of total marketing budgets is targeted at people over 55, while that same segment holds 80% of the wealth in the UK. Why are marketers apparently ignoring this market? ‘This isn’t about being virtuous; this is about missing an opportunity,’ she said.

Be responsive

Admittedly this is easier for small companies and brands, said Philippa Snare; they often compensate for their lack of budget by using social media and digital platforms really well. They are able to connect immediately and adjust quickly, possibly because they do not have as much to lose as the big brands with big legacies. ‘Big brands tie themselves in knots to connect with customers and they do it in a very artificial way,’ said Snare. Gillette, for example, was slow to respond to the vitriolic criticism in some quarters of the ‘The best men can be’ advertisement.

Question yourselves endlessly and don’t default to stereotypes

Felipe Thomaz observed that all of these issues were being discussed in MBA classes, and that future marketing leaders seemed to be well ahead of the game. However, he cautioned against brands talking a good game and then lazily falling back on stereotypes when it came to actually doing something: ‘People work their way backwards into a trap, and the final decision is to target is men aged 18 to 35. [You need to] push back when people default to these old standards. We have to fight back against this urge to simplify.’

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