“Smart organisations will understand that the 21st century is the ‘Women’s Century’. Women’s economic empowerment will drive the world’s economy”.
– Mukhtar Kent, CEO, Coca-Cola.
The empowerment of women in today's media
We keep a keen eye on the depiction of gender in communications and our mainstream media — keen because it’s important that men and women are depicted in a positive, non-stereotypical manner. After all, the role of brands today is one of influencer, innovator and at times, a catalyst for change.
We’ve spoken on gender before, we’ve presented to the Australian Marketing Institute on the topic and we’ve also partnered with a client this year to work towards a more positive and diverse depiction of young men and women in the sport of Netball.
In our review of media, communications and brand activity over the year, we observed with interest the way women were depicted by mainstream media –in most cases we saw stereotypical depictions that would not feel out of place in a retail catalogue of the 1950s — but in some cases we saw innovation; and what made these cases worth noting, was their power to influence positive change in a wide audience segment.
Enter, Fempowerment — The empowerment of women in media, advertising and communications.
This communications trend is driven by a long on-going discussion of how women are depicted in the media, a struggle of gender representation and research that shows that women now account for as much as 80% of all consumer purchases.
The recent Women 2020 report explored how women act as catalysts for fundamental and commercial changes in the world and concluded that the future should expect a shift in male-dominated patterns, particularly in consumer-based industries.
On the following pages, we curate the most memorable campaigns from the past year that target the female consumer and overall scream #girlpower.
Dr. Bernice Ledbetter wrote that such ads are “truly a banner in the battleground of the feminist movement”, and we certainly agree.
In 2014, Procter & Gamble’s feminine hygiene brand Always teamed up with documentarian Lauren Greenfield to produce the ‘#LikeAGirl’ campaign.
With short video content at its centre, adults and young girls were asked to perform actions “like a girl”, running, throwing; they were asked to ’act like a girl’ to prove the negative connotations the phrase has in society.
This campaign tackled real-world problems and explored how ‘femaleness’, when used derogatorily has an increasingly negative impact on women’s self-confidence as they mature. Within a few weeks the video had over 21 million YouTube hits; today that figure is now over 53 million.
I Will What I Want
Sports apparel brand Under Armour developed a global campaign title I Will What I Want — using elite female athletes overcoming adversity to achieve their goals.
Competing with apparel brand giants Lululemon and Nike, Under Armour’s 20 online videos of successful female athletes most notably featured 32-year-old soloist for the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland. The video opens with her practicing in her ballet studio, as we watch her gracefully and defiantly leaping into the air, a voiceover reads a rejection letter that accompanies the feel-good imagery: “You have the wrong body for ballet”.
The message and its execution are excruciatingly clear.
Copeland said, “I think every woman has her version of that rejection letter. Everyone has been told they aren’t good enough and won’t succeed”. The campaign distills the message that no woman needs advice, permission or affirmation to do the things they want to do. Within its first week online the inspiring video had over 4 million views.
Inspire Her Mind
In a bid to do away with gender stereotypes that tell young girls to stay away from “boy things” such a science and maths, Verizon’s ‘Inspire Her Mind’ campaign insists that we replace the things we say to young girls — ‘put down sharp objects’, ‘don’t get your dress dirty’ — with words that encourage them to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering and maths (commonly referred to as STEM careers); vocations with a traditionally high percentage of males.
Their research found that 66% of Grade 4 primary school girls say they like science and maths, but only 18% of all college engineering majors are female, and that this is a result of gender stereotyping children’s’ interests throughout their time in the education system.
Similarly, the Women 2020 reported a growing female interest in STEM careers but compared to their male counterparts in the industry, women in STEM fields face a pay gap of 14% showing us that social and cultural stereotypes of which professions they are “good at” still exist — fueling the gender pay gap.
‘Inspire Her Mind’ highlights these issues and resonates with anyone who has ever been told to act a certain way because they are female.
Gender stereotypes surrounding the workplace pose a real life problem for females and young girls in particular who try to assert themselves and progress in their careers. This campaign uses the insight that young girls will be called “bossy” for their assertiveness, whilst young boys will be called a “leader” for taking the reins. One is encouraging; the other teaches girls to step down; to soften.
“You tried to change didn’t you? Closed your mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less volatile, less awake…”
– Warsan Shire
To change this story, the Lean In organisation in conjunction with the Girls Scouts of America, created video content and a strong online content channel (banbossy.com) that highlights the price we pay for discouraging girls to be assertive, to take control. The campaign calls on us to change the words we use, to ban words like “bossy”, “pushy”, “know-it-all”, “aggressive” and encourage girls to keep stepping forward and speaking up because it is those actions that will change the world.
The ad has more than 500,000 views on YouTube at time of writing and the message was further backed by the likes of Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner, Diane Von Furstenberg and Jane Lynch who created their own #banbossy video.
Warsan Shire is a highly-awarded British-Somali poet known for her poems that connect with her Somali heritage and other young girls.
Real Beauty Sketches
We’re sure by now you’ve seen this one. It’s been dubbed the most viral video ad of all time with over 100 million views in its first month and has now been translated in to 25 different languages.
Created as a part of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, the ad features women describing themselves to a sketch artist with an undirected tendency to focus on the physical attributes that they found most problematic — “squinty eyes”, “biggish nose” culiminating in sketches that didn’t reflect the subject accurately.
When each woman was asked to describe one another, the sketches turned out a lot more accurate. Dove’s overarching aim was to show women that they are “more beautiful than they think they are”.
The ad has been covered in criticism that regardless of its success, is important to note. Many have argued that the campaign is actually not feminist for the following reasons:
The video only focuses on a small subset of women; most of the “real” and “beautiful” women in the video are thin, Caucasian, blonde, the oldest woman is 40; it still upholds the notion that beauty is paramount; and it blames women for their skewed self-perceptions rather than society.
The ads overall message is that we shouldn’t hold such negative feelings to how we look.
Criticisms aside, how did the ad become the most viral video ad of all time?
It tackles a very prominent and relatable issue. Dove’s research found that 54% of women globally (that’s about 672 million women) agree that they are their own worst beauty critics. Creating a story that women can interchangeably picture themselves in means the ad will garner a strong emotional response and is likely to have viewers sharing it with their friends and networks. In the campaign’s first two weeks, it attracted 3.17 million shares — more than any ad before its time.
Whichever side an individuals’ personal feelings towards the campaign sits, if nothing else Dove successfully fuelled many different conversations surrounding the perception of appearance and beauty and the depths of what defines feminism.
Potty Mouthed Princesses
FCKH8.com creates wearable statement apparel with an activist heart and are on a mission for positive social change.
‘F-Bombs for Feminism’ is part of a series created by FCKH8 in a stand against sexism. Informed by research that showed women are still paid 23% less than men for the same work and 1 in 5 women are raped or sexually assaulted, the video serves as an ad for their products but strongly poses the question “What’s more offensive?” and boldly throws it in the viewer’s face.
Featuring little girls aged between 6 and 13 dropping the F-word countless times under the premise of asking the viewer, what’s more offensive — a little girl swearing like a sailor or that society is still teaching girls how to dress, to not get raped?
With mixed responses, this is certainly advertising like you’ve never heard it before.
Many have argued that the idea of young girls wearing princess dresses and discussing feminism is great, but the language is unnecessary. Some have taken a very serious tone and said we should be protecting children from knowing what rape is, let alone being worried about it.
“Both men and women should
feel free to be.”
– Emma Watson, Activist, Actor
(Language warning for the video below)
Leveraging important cultural insights in communications will creative a deep, meaningful connection with consumers.
With Fempowerment we see an opportunity to create a commercial space where female personal preference, taste, body image and attitudes reign in a positive light.
It’s important to emphasise that ‘woman’ is not homogenous, there is more than one consumer to be reached through women, including their circles of care and influence.
“I want these brands’ competitors to notice how wildly popular these stereotype-smashing commercials have been and then shamelessly copy their style”.
– Natalie Baker, marketing strategist and writer
The surrounding commentary of all the examples shown have at some point questioned whether or not, for-profit companies should really be in the business of appropriating messages of social justice. Many have argued that these companies are still trying to sell us stuff and maybe they’ll say or do anything to make another dollar.
That may be partly true but perhaps that misses the point.
It pays to look at the world critically, to sometimes be a bit skeptical of where things come from but its crucial to remember and understand that this content were made in a new-media environment. Alone, the content may not solve any social inadequacies but it does drive important and relevant conversation.
Some were made to be shocking and attention-grabbing, others to be painfully relatable or in some cases funny, to function like click-bait and to make a point about how women are, or how women should be represented in media.
If the goal is to empower women as employees, as leaders and as customers then gender representation in popular culture needs to improve and evolve. Brands need to influence the consumer, and in this case the female consumer, in a higher and intellectual level, rather than just the superficial.
We may not quite be there yet but we’re certainly getting closer.
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I co-authored this piece with Taylah Kleid and it was first published on our website in February 2015