People Per Hour, a freelancing community, posted an advert in the London Underground in 2019 that read, “You do the girl boss thing. We’ll do the SEO thing.” The Advertising Standards Authority banned the ad after many complaints, ruling that it reinforced "harmful gender stereotypes" by using the term “girl boss.”
Perhaps the ad had good intentions, but the failure to recognize that women are just as capable and likely to be CEO instead of a “girl boss” is where sexism starts to become covert.
As long as society remains largely numb to sexist messages, the problem will continue to spread.
Unfortunately, not all sexism in advertising is as subtle. On March 8, Burger King UK tweeted that “Women belong in the kitchen.” If you can believe it, this was part of a campaign launched on International Women’s Day because “only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships.”
How can this happen in 2021? And why is sexism still an issue that permeates advertising?
Jane Cunningham, one of the authors of the upcoming book “Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It,” suggests that brands have amassed so much power that they’re telling consumers who they should become. Brands love pontificating about being customer-centric, yet often have an outdated and archaic view of who their customers are in reality. Customers are diverse and multifaceted, something many brands can’t seem to grasp. For brands to be genuinely inclusive, representative, and customer-centric, they need to let their customers represent them instead of the other way around.
Dove is one of the pioneers of accurately representing customers, launching the Real Beauty Pledge in 2017—a campaign and a commitment to showcasing real, unedited women instead of the photoshopped models that have become the advertising standard.
Savvy brands like Dove know that eradicating sexism isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also good for business. Women control most of the purchasing power, accounting for 85% of consumer purchases and 58% of U.S. ecommerce spending. And half of all products marketed to men are actually purchased by women.
Despite these dramatic figures, there is a massive gap between how brands advertise to women and what women want to see, with 91% of women agreeing that advertisers don’t understand them.
Brands must recognize that women are much more than a set of archaic stereotypes. Brands can build an authentic connection by putting women at the core of marketing campaigns and simultaneously cater to a valuable demographic that will boost their bottom line.
Sexism remains a fundamental issue in our field that we must address through education, advocacy, and action. We desperately need more women in senior leadership positions to guide the process and provide accountability. And given the influence that marketing and advertising have in our society, we must take pragmatic steps to establish equality, diversity, and representation in our work so that sexism of any kind can’t sneak back in.