Why marketing is still sexist and how to fix it

How we can market to women better.

Following the launch of their new book 'Brandsplaining: why marketing is (still) sexist and how to fix it' Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts outline the steps we can take to market to women better.

Philippa and I left our jobs in advertising almost fifteen years ago because we felt companies marketed to women in a way that was out of step with the way they really were. We attributed this gap between brands that targeted women and the women they were trying to attract, at least in part to the poor representation of women in creative departments and the poor representation of senior women both within agencies and in marketing departments. We argued the case at the time for a better understanding of female motivations and communications preferences.

So, fifteen years on, what if anything has changed?

A good place to start is the recent report which the IPA has diligently compiled on the inclusiveness and diversity of the advertising industry. Hats off to the IPA for doing a regular census, publishing it, and being ambitious in its efforts to create a more diverse industry profile. However, a clue to how successful the industry has been in achieving those ambitions is in the name of the report – A Future of Fairness. The truth of it is that while some things have changed, they have changed slowly and in fact many things have not changed at all. Fairness, as the title of the report suggests, is still in the future not in the present.

Women still occupy only a third of C-suite positions, despite representing half the population of the industry. The intersection between gender and age and ethnicity shows an even more dramatic underrepresentation. Only about 3% of the industry population are women over 50 years old and no amount of value-axis-truncating is going to make the growth of representation of ethnic minorities in advertising look like a success story. And, 70% of people who work in advertising grew up in a household with parents within the affluent AB social grade, yet the women they need to understand and represent are more likely to be in low paid, part time or unpaid work.

The reason it matters so very much that agencies are more inclusive, is that what they produce – for good ends and bad - is highly influential. It impacts how the world sees women and it impacts how women see themselves. And we have found over our fifteen years of researching with women and the work we did to write our new book, that the product is, sad to say, often still sexist. Not sexist in the overt and obvious ways it used to be, but in sneakier ways. These, more under the radar, harder to point out ways of diminishing women show how hard it is to shift old ideas about what women are and what they want.

Passive, attractive, domestic, almost always young, and almost always white

The analysis of marketing that we conducted for our new book Brandsplaining revealed that far from being 'fempowering' (the fashionable trope of the 2000’s in marketing to women), much of it still presents women in traditional ‘man-pleasing’ roles. Women are often shown as passive, attractive, domestic, almost always young, and almost always white. They are shown always laughing but rarely being funny (in only 3% of ads); rarely speaking (seven time less than men) and much more often listening. Brands still behave as if women are there on receive, ready to told: brands tell women now not just how to look but also how to act – to be braver not just more beautiful; women are treated as a special needs case, being advised how to fix themselves in order to be better and do better (usually in order to be more like men or in order to be more liked by men).

Bold, loud, confident, enlightened and independent-minded as they age

In 2021, women do not need or want brands to explain to them how they should be or what they should want. Women are better educated, less in the thrall of a future of marriage and children and therefore feel no need to be a certain way in order to please men. Once they are married and, or have children they are less likely to collaborate with the idea that it is blissful – so selling them the Perfect Mom is no longer credible. They are more likely to be bold, loud, confident, enlightened and independent-minded as they age, so older women won’t be left out and ignored.

So, if marketing has not moved on as far as we had hoped it would when we first set out, what can be done now to change it?

1. Balance the gender representation in agencies

The first practical step to getting women first seen as they are and then represented as they are, is to balance the gender representation in agencies – more women, and in particular more older women and more women of colour. The creative departments of agencies are still too skewed to youth, whiteness and maleness, and this lens on women is evident in the work they produce.

2. Investigate the ways in which woman-made brands have transformed whole categories

A second straightforward step that teams can take is to investigate the ways in which woman-made brands have transformed whole categories with their intuitive understanding of women: read about Anne Boden and Starling Bank in her autobiography; research Michelle Cordeiro Grant and her brand Lively; understand the motivation and insight that Emily Weiss brought to Glossier. Each of these brands is unconsciously unsexist and gaining the edge in its markets as a result. Analysing what first inspired these brands, and how differently they communicate with women will unlock a host of possibilities for teams that feel stuck in old approaches.  

3. Demand a granular and grounded sense check on the reality of female lives

A third way to progress is to demand a granular and grounded sense check on the reality of female lives before new strategies and creative work get produced. Gaps in organisations’ understanding of female lives means they give too much emphasis and care to aspirations that match their own (because they are university educated, young and from affluent backgrounds). The female majority wish to be financially independent, to be comfortable in their own skin and to make their own decisions. Smashing glass ceilings and securing a spot in the boardroom are not the hopes for most women, who are still doing most of the low paid jobs in our economies. The preoccupation with big data over the last ten years has left gaps where understanding used to reside. A renewed emphasis on close and careful qualitative research methods would go some way to closing those gaps.

Finally, we would encourage brands to think through the implications of boxing men into brooding, silent heroes or giddy, silly clowns, and what that does to them, and the women around them. And instead of selling Feminism to women (most of whom are already bought in), perhaps they should sell it to men instead.

The IPA D&I report is a great initiative, and there’s a wonderful spirit of ambition and positivity about it. It is a signal that the industry will face into the role and responsibility it plays in creating a fairer future, not just for those within its own industry, but those who are impacted by the ideas it projects out into the world.

Brandsplaining: why marketing is (still) sexist and how to fix it by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, is published by Penguin. Jane and Philippa run PLHresearch, a research agency that specializes in understanding female audiences. You can find them on Instagram at @plhresearch.

Download A Future of Fairness
Last updated 10 November 2021