Why advertising's outdated attitudes to women could lose millions for clients
Recently in the industry a well-known multinational group celebrated a milestone in their history with a burlesque birthday “theme”. It featured women performing a striptease, and culminated with them in their scantily clad bondage-lingerie placing Louis Vuitton bags over their heads.
Later, at the conclusion of a Director’s speech, a woman jumped out of a cake.
The marketing and advertising industry press has lifted the lid of a boiling hot pot fuelling emotional outrages and defensive statements. Within 48 hours, the agency that held the party chose to apologise (kind of) for causing any offence.
Blatantly sexualising women in the ad industry has always been part of the work environment. When I started in the industry men held the majority of the c-suite positions, and women were the secretaries. Though times have changed in recent years, in the Creative Departments women have held only 3% of Creative Director positions. Women in these department endured men who believed they were entitled to make commentary on a woman’s wardrobe and appearance, make suggestive comments, and turn serious conversations about work into opportunities to court or subtlety remind women they are only objects of desire.
Recently I was asked to be on a panel discussion about diversity. When I came off stage I had a conversation with a serious industry heavyweight. His view of women “complaining” about sexism and harassment was akin to victim blaming, he pretty much said that a lot of women are asking for trouble or are out of their depth.
I was dumbfounded, confused that he’d actually say that, and lost for an appropriate response. It took days for me to shake off his comments.
The silver lining? It’s the fire I need to work harder to produce change, and I expect that much of this will be extinct by the time my young daughters enter the workforce.
The nice guys in my industry, that I genuinely trusted, had always counselled me that I should keep quiet about the frequent cases of sexism, sexual harassment and appalling behaviour by too many men over my 13-year history in the big agencies. Girls who complained never worked in our industry again, and I was told that the only career I would damage by speaking up about it would be my own.
Which is why starting my own agency was such a watershed moment. Except for a few less-evolved men on the street, I have not been harassed since. The last 12 years of my career have been the best: learning and experiencing every facet of business ownership and entrepreneurialism, and making far more money that if I had stayed in the agencies that were putting up with this behaviour.
In a world where women are responsible for nearly 80% purchasing decisions in a $35 trillion dollar consumer economy you may well ask, “Where are the women”? You many wonder why the communications are not more aligned with female values.
You may wonder why marketing speaks the language of warfare, bulls-eyes and targets. You may wonder why industry events remain so sexist in their choices of entertainment. You may wonder why a hardware chain called itself Masters and painted itself blue when 80% of the DIY audience are women.
And yet you may feel less confused about why so much of advertising communication misses the mark with women (an Arnold Greenfield Online Survey revealed that 91% of women feel misunderstood by marketers and advertisers.)
Women are responsible for 9 out of 10 consumer purchases. For years my own advertising agency was seen as a niche player, and specialist. It was to be expected that an industry that has little respect for female talent would recognise an agency that espoused an understanding of women.
Yet over the years, consultancies like Boston Consulting Group and Ernst and Young have undertaken studies about the future of this valuable and influential audience and educated the market that the economic tipping point of women is indeed here. Women’s fiscal influence is so great now, that it is deciding which brands thrive, and which brands can even survive.
Creating a new world where men and women are allowed to be different but live as equals is where this century is headed. The Athena Doctrines by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio found that 66% of adults agree that the world would be a better place if men thought more like women. So its time the advertising game not just improved their quota of women, but started to rethink their old methods for selling to them. The ideas expressed, stories told, images created, and values embraced by our industry should spearhead us into a better future rather than relying on blunt old methods and poorly executed clichés.
Ignorant and outdated attitudes towards women from our industry is not serving our clients. Agencies under the brain-atrophied anaesthetic of “unconscious bias” can hardly offer sound advice on how to counsel their clients appropriately. Understanding the new strong female economy and what women really want is our job because they are tantamount to brands survival. The old ways of selling that used to work, no longer meet the needs of female audiences. And those trapped in old-world views of privilege and unconscious biases can’t see the future. One that embraces the incredible opportunities liberating both sexes, and the part we can play in bringing the right messages that influence and create the society we want to live in and contribute to.
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