Advertising's Gender Problem: Some Brands Are Starting To Get It

When CEOs of holding companies have public he said-she said spats about gender inequality in the advertising industry, it’s apparent we have reached a tipping point.

I’m referring, of course, to the sexual harassment lawsuit filed last month against J. Walter Thompson, owned by WPP, and its now former CEO Gustavo Martinez — which has rocked an industry that thought it had come a long way from the Mad Men era. 

During the 4A’s Transformation conference last month, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell was asked directly about the lawsuit, and part of his answer included an acknowledgement that the industry has work to do in terms of gender equality. Sorrell added that while women make up 50% of WPP’s workforce, they account for only 33% of senior-executive positions, a number he says he is committed to seeing increase. Important footnote: WPP’s board of directors consists of four females out of 13 seats. My POV: He should start there.

But here is another sad reality about advertising today: Women control an estimated 85% of purchasing decisions in this country, yet over 91% of them feel like advertisers don’t understand them. 

Recently, the objectification of women in advertising reached a critical mass with the launch of the #WomenNotObjects movement. “Women” have become the latest buzzword in the ad world, with more focus on the problems and not on the positive examples or solutions.

But some brands are embracing women in a modern way. Industries such as beer and children’s toys, which have decades of ingrained habits regarding gender stereotypes, are starting to make much-needed progress.

Mattel, after years of pressure to address Barbie’s outdated ethos, earlier this year announced major updates to the doll, which include giving Barbie a variety of looks to better represent today’s women and girls through varying body types, hair and skin tones. Ironically, when Barbie was created in 1959, she sported a more natural body and a positive representation, but over the years high heels, pouty lips and Malibu Beach House became the norm.

As a category, beer has been notorious for speaking to men at the exclusion of women. 

But two of the nation’s largest beer brands are making strides. Coors Light’s recent “Climb On” campaign demonstrates an effort to include women in non-objectifying ways. Similarly, Bud Light’s Super Bowl spot, “Party”, which featured Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer, is a significant upgrade from last year’s “Up for Whatever” debacle. These advertisers are realizing that a broader target means better business.

Nothing changes overnight, which is why I’m a proponent of “progress, not perfection.” I will continue to applaud brands whose messaging displays progressive approaches to culture and gender. I like to envision a future where the more than 85% of women who make purchasing decisions identify with 91& of the advertising they consume. 

And I hope it will be in five years and not 50.

1 comment about "Advertising's Gender Problem: Some Brands Are Starting To Get It".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, April 13, 2016 at 12:02 p.m.

    Is anyone at Hardee's/Carl's Jr. listening?

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