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Are Marketers (Finally) Realizing That Stereotyping Women Doesn’t Work?

Sexism might have moved products in the past, but increasingly women aren’t buying it. It’s time marketing finally catches up.

Are Marketers (Finally) Realizing That Stereotyping Women Doesn’t Work?
[Hero Images/Getty Images]

With women as influential as they are today, it’s difficult to understand why much of the marketing world hasn’t caught up yet.

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The average American woman is expected to earn more than the average American male by 2020, there are currently more female graduates entering the workforce than male, and women now handle the bulk of the purchasing decisions in the U.S.

There are several ads and businesses that reflect today’s reality and embrace the diverse roles women play. But according to Andrew Robertson, president and CEO of ad agency BBDO Worldwide, it’s not enough. For every few positive depictions of women you see, there are thousands more that show women as hyper-sexualized objects, bad mothers, and bossy coworkers.

“I think it’s good to have trailblazers, but there’s plenty, plenty, plenty more scope for improvement,” he explained during yesterday’s Advertising Week Panel “Rethinking Marketing to Women” in New York City.

While a great deal of the marketing world has much to improve upon, we can look to several businesses that are getting it right for a sense of what the future of marketing to women should look like.

“[Marketing for women] isn’t about doing the right thing–even though, let’s be clear, they’re doing the right thing. This is about business,” explained Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who moderated the panel.

Depicting Modern Women

Jonathan Klein, CEO and cofounder of stock photo house Getty Images, explained that a few years ago, his team of visual anthropologists discovered that the “classic”–read stereotypical–stock photos of women weren’t really performing well. People wanted something different, he says.

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“We needed imagery which better reflected not a cliché of women, but women as they are today and as they’re likely to be in the future,” Klein says.

By teaming up with Sandberg’s nonprofit LeanIn.org, Getty created its Lean In Collection, a library of more than 2,500 images of powerful women and those that help support them.

Since Getty created the collection a little more than a year ago, it has seen 65% growth in sales, which signals to Klein that these depictions of women resonate both culturally and commercially.

Sandberg emphasizes that the collection will never have images of women eating sad lunches alone, of women with briefcases and crying babies, or of women in stilettos climbing a ladder.

In fact, the top-selling image depicts two designers–a man and a woman–examining sample shoes and design drawings on the floor of an office. Why does this image resonate so much?

“I think one of the reasons why it’s such a good seller is because the woman and the man are literally, visually, and figuratively on the same level,” Klein says.

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Fighting The Good Fight

To create an effective movement, you need something to fight against, says Robertson. For his company’s #ShineStrong Pantene ad, that something was double standards.

The video highlights the different labels men and women receive in similar situations: A male executive is labeled the “boss,” while his female equivalent is “bossy”; a father that works well into the night is “dedicated,” but a mother who does the same is “selfish.”

“The thing we took as our movement–the thing to fight against–was the words, the labels, that were holding women back,” Robertson says. “What we wanted to do was show women that we understood that and take it from something that was really internalized to make it very obvious.”

Brand favorability increased by 5% since the ad’s airing, 9% among Millennials, and the commercial garnered 57 million views. Most importantly, though, Robertson says this kind of campaign creates an understanding and connection to women.

Keeping It Real

“You want to use a brand that understands you,” said Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, who believes that in today’s social-media age, people want to engage honestly with what’s going on.

For one thing, she said that misrepresenting how women really look with tools like Photoshop is both a disservice to the reader and the subject. Coles says she will make the call to edit out someone’s blemishes because everyone wants to be presented as their best self, but she draws the line at shaving pounds off women–that’s just not who they are.

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While the magazine is and always has been famous for its sex tips and colorful relationship commentary, Coles also wanted to transition the magazine’s content to be more in line with where women are today, which is at work.

“Women wanted a cheerleader for them in the workplace,” she said. As a result of creating a careers section, the magazine’s circulation significantly increased.

Robertson believes that these approaches to marketing to women are just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s time companies stop falling back to old tropes that have gotten results in the past. They may have worked, but you can always do better he says. “‘It works’ isn’t really enough of a defense.”

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere.

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