Just say 'no': The time has come to kill the gender cliché
A view from Will Harris

Just say 'no': The time has come to kill the gender cliché

The battle for equal representation of women in the marketing industry is over and won. It's marketing campaigns that need to catch up.

It’s a dangerous thing, writing about women, if you’re a man. Every word must be precise and deliberate. One foot out of place, and the world comes down on you like a tonne of bricks. One needs to avoid the smug self-congratulatory tones of the do-gooder just as much as the blundering misogyny of Nigel Farage. Balanced, well-meaning fence-sitting may make for an easy life at dinner parties, but it makes for a very dull read.

So it is with some trepidation that I declare my belief that this particular battle is over and won. The crusade for equality in marketing, with women as both practitioners and audience, seems to me to have reached a satisfactory conclusion.

Consider the evidence. Is your marketing department or agency institutionally stacked against women? Are there people working alongside you who really believe that a woman’s place is in the home? And aren’t we working in a profession that has more female employees than male? Unless you are reading this in Putin’s Russia, the chances are your answer will be no, no and yes.

Ah, so it’s the top jobs where there’s an issue? Over-representation at the bottom of the organisations and under-representation at the top, you say. But not in marketing, right?

Pretty even

As far as I can see, the split is pretty even. A quick flick through the Marketing Group of Great Britain member list, and it looks more or less half-and-half. I know that at least two of the biggest marketing brands in the UK have a policy of appointing women to their CMO positions, but only because I found out through friends when I inquired about roles there. It’s a smart way of counterbalancing a male-dominated board; if the face of your board is a man, then give the voice of your brand to a woman. No issues from me on that one.

What about the audiences, then? Are they male-dominated? Do we marketers and agency types automatically think meat and two veg when we promote products and services? Of course not. Any marketer worth their salt starts their pen portrait of the target audience with gender. If women are the purchasers (or decision-makers, for that matter), that’s where the first peg is hammered into the ground, and everything else is laid out from there.

How can we reflect a better society, free from prejudice about gender, race or sexuality?

If you’re still basing your thinking on a male audience for a product where women play the lead role, you’re not a misogynist, you’re an idiot. It’s poor marketing, and you will fail. These days, with the scrutiny of metrics and accountability, you’ll just fail faster – and if that’s not progress, then I don’t know what is.

So if I am right, and the battle is won, what are we still fighting about?

This is where it gets interesting. The real battle is about the role of women in society at large. As marketers, we spend more of our time reflecting society than leading it. (That’s what politicians are supposed to be doing, and when they stop doing that, things start to go wrong.) Marketing campaigns work best when they reflect a situation that consumers know to be true. Brands are happy to revert to stereotypes in marketing, and can nudge consumers only so far to make the point. Unless you are in the business of trying to shock people, you stretch consumers at your peril.

Familiar cliché

Consider the predicament of the supermarkets. They know the majority of their weekly basket depends upon female shoppers, yet every time they portray them in kitchen/aisles/checkout they add another layer of lacquer to a familiar cliché of women at home while men go out to work. Yet if they were to reflect a more diverse version of society, with dad at home and mum at work, the communication would misfire and the brand would suffer. This sort of advertising works fastest from a reflex reaction of familiarity.

This is the struggle that we are really engaged in. How can we use marketing to reflect a better society, free from any prejudice about gender, race or sexuality? Can we take the enlightenment of the metropolitan elite minority (which is what we are) and project it on the mass audience, and still hope to be commercially successful?

When you, the marketer, are offered the opportunity to surrender to a handy but outdated image of women in society, just say no.

The answer lies in creative thinking. We should have a deep and embedded marketing allergy to the familiar and lazy. It’s easy to lapse into scenes, vignettes, images and headlines that are off-the-shelf and familiar.

As an aspirant writer, I worship at the altar of Christopher Hitchens, AA Gill, Martin Amis and anyone else who can finish a sentence without lapsing into cliché. It’s so easy to do; you get half-way through the construction, and your mind takes over on a well-trodden path (there’s one!), allowing you to start thinking about the sentence that follows.

With the best writers you never know what the end of their sentence will bring. So, too, with the great marketers, who don’t fall back on gender stereotypes, but still bring us all with them in the stories their brands tell. It’s a true art.

This is the battle we should fight, and it deserves to be fought. Like a Japanese soldier who refused to believe the war was over, when you, the marketer, are offered the opportunity to surrender to a handy but outdated image of women in society, just say no. Or, if you went to a public school, just say no thank you.

Will Harris is joint chief executive of PR agency Mission and a former marketing chief at Nokia.