Portraits of a lady

As Kate Magee heard at last week's Wacl event, advertising continues to represent women unfairly.

  • Always


  • Moneysupermarket.com


  • Sport England

    Sport England

  • Hoover


  • Tipalet



I want you to get it out. I want to see it. I want to feel it, hold it, put it in my mouth," the young woman says in a close-up to camera.

No, this isn’t a scene from 50 Shades Of Grey but from an ad shown on daytime TV last year for the e-cigarette brand VIP.

It was an example highlighted at last week’s Wacl event in the House of Commons, where the audience agreed conclusively – after fierce debate – that the depiction of women in advertising today still lags behind the reality.

Yes, there has been huge progress over the past 25 years – just look at the brilliant Sport England campaign "this girl can" by FCB Inferno – but there is still much more to be done.

The lazy use of outdated stereotypes and unnecessary sexualisation aside, what’s often most damaging is unconscious bias.

The chair of the Account Planning Group, Tracey Follows, highlighted a recent Apple ad for Siri in which men asked work-related questions while women requested a reminder about grocery shopping.

It’s this type of bias that is powerfully exposed in the "#LikeAGirl" ad for Always by Leo Burnett. And also why the Thinkbox chair, Tess Alps, argued that Mother’s "epic strut" ad for Moneysupermarket.com is a feminist statement. The spot shows a man flouncing down the street in hotpants and high heels.

"By making a man behave like women are expected to behave all the time, it shows how ridiculous it is," Alps said. "We might not always be able to change the culture, but we don’t have to adopt the worst aspects of it."

Partly, the bias is a result of the "male gaze". If the majority of creative directors in charge of depicting a woman are men, can they – however well-intentioned – ever truly reflect a woman’s experience?

The problem is not usually an individual ad but the accumulative effect of what advertising says about the role of women in society.

One of the most interesting ways to redress the balance came from Thinkbox’s chief executive, Lindsey Clay, who suggested the creation of a Bechdel test for advertising.

The Bechdel test, originally used on movies, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many films fail the test.

Clay suggested judging whether an ad showed a woman who was not in a domestic setting, not playing a nurturing role and not defined through a sexual relationship with a man.

It’s a thought-provoking concept but, as the debate showed, things are not always clear-cut. Procter & Gamble’s brand director of northern Europe, Roisin Donnelly, said that businesses cannot afford to offend women in their ads because they won’t be effective if they don’t engage with the consumer. She then cited research revealing that UK women still handle 75 per cent of the housework and 88 per cent of the childcare.

Frightening statistics, but if 70 per cent of females say they feel alienated by most ads (research pointed out by Follows), then perhaps women don’t recognise, or want to recognise, the reality.

Advertising is aspirational and has the power to change behaviour. So it is also within the industry’s power to show a more equal society in ads.

As the equalities minister Jo Swinson put it: "Does advertising want to reflect what reality is, or lead us to a new reality?"

Wacl’s House of Commons debate: Why now, what next?

Lindsay Pattison, president, Wacl; worldwide chief executive, Maxus

I’m loving the current zeitgeist for more empowered, diverse images of women in ads. Always’ "#LikeAGirl" and Sport England’s "this girl can" both sassily and really effectively invert damaging stereotypes. Meanwhile, L’Oréal (a client) recently appointed Helen Mirren as a UK ambassador.

Our debate highlighted that, while we’ve come far, it is, as Tess Alps summed up so eloquently, "not job done".

Examining our own business is a helpful lens and one that shows the need for Wacl, aged 92, to still exist. As our vice-president, Lindsey Clay, pointed out: while we start out in advertising with a 50/50 gender split, as we "progress" only 25 per cent of senior management roles are held by women. Not a great start.

And it’s far, far worse when we delve into disciplines; the lack of senior female creatives is a massive issue worldwide. On 12 June, the 3% Club (reflecting the percentage of executive creative directors stateside who are female) will come here to help raise awareness and inspire more creative talent, so that the people conceiving ads bring a realistic, empathetic view and also reflect the market.

We’re making a big effort to attract and support female chief strategy officers too; as an organisation, we will try to encourage more super senior female planners to help us deliver true insights and thus effective comms. Misunderstanding female consumers from a business perspective is lunacy; two-thirds of the world’s purchase power is wielded by females – that’s $12 trillion!

What else can we do? We can call out any lazy, unhelpful hangovers of casual sexism and gender stereotyping as a priority – we can all raise our hands and our voices. It’s our industry and we should all take responsibility.

Wacl’s goal isn’t to create an undue advantage, but we do want a level playing field. Let’s reflect reality – or, better yet, an achievable improvement on a society where only 23 per cent of our MPs and five of our FTSE 100 chief executives are women.