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10 ways to end sexism in marketing

Marketing specialists Jane Cunningham and Phillipa Roberts explain why sexism in marketing persists, even in the age of “fempowerment” and 10 ways to change it

10 ways to end sexism in marketing

“We’re very optimistic that things can change.” Jane Cunningham, co-author of the book Brandsplaining is talking about the persistence of sexism in marketing. “Women are speaking out now, telling brands what they object to and how they like to be marketed to. And there are now some really good role-model brands for others to follow.”

Along with her business partner Phillipa Roberts, Cunningham is co-founder of the market research agency PLH, which specialises in helping brands understand and serve female audiences. The pair have already written two books together, both looking at how brands can connect with female audiences. 

Their third book - Brandsplaining - is just out. The work is a clear-eyed and meticulously researched look at why, despite all the progress of recent years, sexism in marketing still persists and what we can all do to change that. 

Cunningham and Roberts spoke with Campaign’s commercial editor Suzanne Bidlake, for the eighth installment of The Zone Book Club, hosted by Zone and Campaign in partnership with Penguin Business.

Brand as Master
A large part of the reason why we haven’t moved beyond sexism in marketing is that we’re still dealing with the legacy of centuries of looking at women’s lives through the male gaze and through the gaze of male marketers, the book suggests.

“The default factory setting for marketing continues to inform the way it’s done today,” explained Roberts, “albeit often in an unconscious way.

“Looking back to the twentieth century, marketing encouraged women to be pleasing to men.”

In this model, marketing saw a woman’s life as a bell curve. Finding the perfect partner, marrying and having children was assumed to be the peak of this curve. Everything before this was a rehearsal for it and everything after was a decline into invisibility and irrelevance. Women were seen as passive consumers, set to “on-receive” and waiting for a brand’s message. 

Brand as Patron
Things have changed since the model they describe was at the height of its domination, the authors agree. And changed, principle, because women can now make themselves heard more than they have ever before.

“There were two centres for voices dissenting to this model,” Cunningham said. “The first was the feminist movement, but a lot of its discussions got trapped in the academic world. The second was discussions among women themselves. But quite often, what you’d hear [from the marketing industry] when women objected to the way they were portrayed was ‘oh, they always say that’. As if women always saying something was somehow evidence that they didn’t mean it.”

But - crucially - Brandsplaining points to the fact that while there has been great progress over the last decade, and there are some good role-model brands, the new model of marketing has not fully left the old behind — and in some ways it may even be worse than its more openly sexist predecessors.

“The new model is this awful word, ‘fempowerment’”, Roberts said. “It’s important that we see this for what it is. There are lots of brands that have done a wonderful job of changing their marketing with this model, using empowerment and feminist messages. Women are told there’s something lacking in them, that they need to change.

“What is going on is that fempowerment is the marketing arm of corporate feminism. Corporate feminism is a strange mash-up of neoliberal ideas that the individual with the right amount of grit and resourcefulness can achieve anything, with feminism. 

“What that neatly, and sometimes cynically, sidesteps is a recognition of what is wrong with the system that holds women back. It puts the onus to change onto the individual and allows the system to carry on as it is.”

Brand as Servant
Having identified the problem, what does the book recommend for marketers who want to cut the sexism out of marketing and serve all consumers equally?

In their conversation with Campaign, the authors talked about five of the 10 principles they suggest for a “new conversation”:

  • Prepare for the primacy of woman-made brands. More likely to serve women’s real and authentic needs, they also tend not to fall into the trap of talking at women rather than to them. 

  • Forget ideals, present a grounded and granular understanding. Talk to women, and all consumers, in ways that reflect and connect to their real lives, not based on marketer assumptions about those lives.

  • Be constructive, not critical. The old model involved brands identifying something that was supposedly wrong with women then offering to help them fix it. 

  • End macho economics which sees employees only as input. Women consumers really care about how companies treat the women they employ. It influences their buying decisions.

  • Acknowledge sexism goes both ways. Bring men into the conversation. Both sexes are limited by outdated attitudes. Only by reshaping masculinity can we create space for a new femininity. Marketing must reflect that. 

Brands, Roberts pointed out, now almost always aspire to a higher purpose than simply maximising sales. If they’re going to sell consumers this version of themselves, they have to embody it. If they don’t, they risk inauthenticity and will not be able to connect with the audiences they want to reach. 

“What word or phrase [in this sphere] makes you cringe the most?” asked Campaign’s Suzanne Bidlake.

“Stop saying ‘badass’!” replied Roberts, with both amusement and frustration. “It’s awful!”

“That’s right,” agreed Cunningham. “I’m not a badass, any more than I am a ‘good girl’. I am a human being, just like anyone else. And stop saying your brand ‘empowers women’. Women are the most highly educated and wealthiest audience. They don’t need your brand to empower them. They can do it themselves. Your brand should serve them.”

For the full 10 principles, order your copy of Brandsplaining here and catch up on the Zone Book Club here.


Zone, a Cognizant Digital Business, created its Book Club series to champion innovation, diversity and creativity in the technology industry, with a specific aim to inspire, educate and inform.  

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