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Advertising Under-represents Women, Internally and in Messaging

Advertsing Under-Represents Women

While the initial media coverage of the #MeToo movement has died down a bit since the end of 2017, it has revived discussions around a host of issues affecting women in the workplace. One discussion is specifically focused on how dominant, powerful men have steered thinking, controlled public discourse and even decided what kinds of stories were told—and who got to tell them—for decades; actually, history shows it’s been centuries. It seems appropriate to discuss advertising’s gender problems as Women’s History Month winds to its annual close… and much of the current focus on women in the media and in business fades into the background, again.

Sadly, the advertising industry has played along with the silencing of women's stories; our industry is notorious for being comprised of mostly white men in positions of leadership. Smaller independent agencies are generally better at gender-diversity—many of our Second Wind member agencies are led by women—but even there, the messages we craft may be built on unconscious biases ingrained from long exposure to ad messages created and produced by, and mostly featuring men.

If Change Is Constant, Why Don’t We?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media’s 2017 report on Gender Bias in Advertising reminds advertisers that inequities in employment and sexual harassment in the workplace are only two areas where advertising is letting women down. The biggest let-down is in how advertising continues to under-represent, stereotype and simply not include women.

The Institute studies how women are represented and portrayed in film, television, media and corporate leadership, with the goal of dramatically improving how girls and women are reflected in media, especially in targeting children 11 and under. The research-based organization analyzes media and entertainment industry output and practices, and offers cutting-edge research, education and advocacy programs.

Their 2017 report on advertising examined more than 2,000 winning Cannes Lions ad entries from 2006 to 2016; for this report, entries were narrowed to those from five English-speaking countries (the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and ranged across 33 product and service categories. Employing automated analysis technologies, the Institute assessed entries identifying age, location, objectification, and other characteristics and traits associated with prominent characters. Analysts reviewed verbal, physical, occupational, and social cues plus other factors.

Over those ten years of social change, advertising’s portrayal of women has remained essentially static; women’s screen time, speaking time, content of speech and complexity of dialogue are statistically pretty much where they were ten years ago. Even more surprising, given women’s financial power in the current era, ads show twice as many male as female characters, and men had three times as much speaking time.

“We assumed that in advertising, given that women dominate purchasing, that commercials would have much greater female representation,” said Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of The Geena Davis Institute. “To find out the reverse was quite surprising.” The institute was able to use AI tools to closely analyze screen time and other details in ads, plumbing the levels of unconscious bias served by advertising. Multiply the effects of under-representing one-half of the global population by thousands of daily impressions, and you can begin to understand why so many young women grow up feeling inadequate, limited by their gender, or simply invisible.

“What this research shows is that our industry has ‘tent-pole moments’—amazing actions or campaigns when we all rally around women; but when it comes to creating our ‘regular’ ads for our ‘regular’ clients, we forget about them,” said Brent Choi, chief creative officer of J. Walter Thompson New York. (The firm’s “futurist” research Innovation Group assisted with the report’s research and analysis.)

How accurate is the study?

Are Cannes nominees a true representation of women in advertisements? I would argue “no.” The huge volume of ads our industry produces and airs include way more women and focus more on women as purchase decision-makers than Cannes would indicate. But I suspect that analyzing all ads, rather than just awards-winners, would still leave women lagging behind men in most of the areas the Institute analyzed.

This would make an interesting research project. Create a spreadsheet and track the TV ads served during prime-time across one week of broadcasting, including the 5 major networks and a selection of cable channels. Note ads that include women, give them speaking roles, give them high-value speaking roles, have complex vs. stereotyped characters, physical appearance, occupations… okay, I see why AI was needed. Still, it would be interesting to see a broader study.

And here’s something to think about; the Institute also has data indicating that 66 percent of women turn off films and TV shows that portray women negatively, or stereotype them. If they’re not watching programming, they’re not seeing ads, either.

Advertisers Can Change Ad Impact for the Better

Agencies can become much better at shifting the cultural perceptions of women and help empower strong, smart, ambitious young women to become leaders in their chosen fields. Each generation teaches the next. But where do we start? Diversity goes far beyond who we hire and promote. It includes who we listen to, whose ideas we embrace, and who gets to lead our teams, craft the messages and present to our clients. By getting a handle on some of those things, our ideas and the work we produce will become more equitable and less dominated by the voices and images of only white men. (The same rules apply to achieving racial diversity, as well as moving disabled employees or LGBTQ people into more prominent roles.)

Leading women in U.S. advertising met recently to found Time’sUpAdvertising, aimed at “driving new policies, practices, decisions, and tangible actions that result in more balanced, diverse, and accountable leadership; address workplace discrimination, harassment, and abuse; and create equitable cultures within our agencies.” The group spun off from the TimesUpNow movement, focused on defeating institutionalized sexist and harassment practices across all professions, that arose following 2017’s #MeToo social media uproar. Also, professional design organization AIGA has launched Double or Nothing, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of female designer leaders in the U.S. If the ad and design industries can address internal biases and work to reduce the imbalances that hold back women and people of color, diversity of leadership and ideas will improve. But every agency principal can start now to address biases practices in HR management, creative management and even client attitudes.

What Steps Can We Take?

The Geena Davis Institute offered some suggestions for starting the shift to less biased advertising.

Include women in strategy, creative and production. Many female images in advertising come from all-male creative and production teams. Research into filmmaking and other business arenas has shown that when women are in decision-making positions, the content of messages and the portrayals of women change, too. That only happens if there are more women working behind the images. Some agencies are actively seeking to recruit more female directors; many are committed to promoting more women to creative director positions; and a few have worked to move more women to leadership positions (with a big push from the 3 Percent Movement). Changing the power structure within agencies is a big step toward changing agency output.

Think long-term. Flashy “fempowerment” ad campaigns make great press, but stand out only because the rest of advertising lags behind in how women are portrayed, and even in how many women have screen time or strong voices in ads. How can agencies shift the portrayal of women in advertising to more equitably represent a group that, by 2020, will be controlling 72.1 trillion of the world’s wealth (per Boston Consulting Group)? Make a conscious effort to question assumptions about audiences, guide clients away from defaulting to biased messaging, and spot check for bias in ad concepts. Every ad you produce can contribute to change if you think more carefully about breaking away from ingrained thinking.

Advertising and marketing firms can effect change quickly because of the short production times between concept and broadcast; altering advertising to give women more complexity, screen time, important messages and reality-based characterizations could have a huge impact on cultural perceptions, and especially on how young women see themselves and the opportunities available to them.

Learn from challenger brands. In the real world, norms are changing rapidly. Advertising needs to keep up. Challenger brands are emerging to alter how we sell, what products we offer, and even how those products are produced… all because women are assuming entrepreneurial leadership. Dominant brands are already seeing erosion in their market dominance because of the shift from bricks-and-mortar to online purchasing. The tools are in place to enable socially aware brands as the next wave of disruption. Understand how clients’ competitors are carving new niches (and stealing market share) from category leaders, and try to help clients find their own points of disruption.

It’s not just about women. Act to improve agency diversity in race, life experience, cultural background, and in as many other ways as you can. Adding more diverse voices within the agency will improve the diversity of your ad messages, and greatly reduce the unconscious biases that make this discussion necessary. 


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