Thought Leadership

Are ‘real women’ still a gimmick in marketing campaigns?

We ask industry leaders if brands and agencies should be doing more to drive diverse representation?

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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It’s been over a decade since Dove’s groundbreaking ‘Campaign for Real Women’ yet the uncomfortable truth for the advertising industry remains that representing women’s lived experiences in advertising is far from the norm.

It is a gap which is particularly apparent when it comes to the depiction of older women in advertising. Rewind to 2017 and research from The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media revealed that women in advertising were predominantly ‘humourless, mute and in the kitchen.’ Fast forward to the present day and very little has changed. 

Research from Ipsos underlines how high the stakes are; with nine out of 10 girls saying they compare themselves to images in the media, it is clear that these stereotypes can be just as damaging to their collective health as HFSS foods. According to Ipsos, when advertisements positively portray women, there is an increased likelihood of having a positive impact on long-term brand relationships, as well as driving short-term behaviour change. 

Of course, there is a red thread between the make-up of creative departments and their output; more women in leadership positions will help to close that gap. While the growing number of standout campaigns such as Essity’s Wombstories underline the effectiveness of showing women as they truly are.

Stereotypes matter because they stop people from achieving their full potential. With this in mind we asked a selection of industry leaders if ‘real women’ are still a gimmick in marketing campaigns and should brands and agencies be doing more to drive diverse representation?

Hannah Williams

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Account Manager

Puzzle

Let’s start with the facts: inclusion and diverse representation shouldn’t be a gimmick or a trend. But... they often still are. There's no such thing as 'real women', ALL women are real women.

You can’t fix a problem if you don’t understand it. We as marketing individuals need to ensure that our solutions come from data, research, and community outreach. It sounds obvious, but the lack of representation in marketing strategies is often due to lack of representation in the workplace. Inclusion and diversity doesn’t happen in one campaign, it starts with your employees, company goals, continued inclusive consideration and tasteful execution. 

Gen Z’s can smell bullshit from a mile off. If you are focusing your continual marketing campaigns on the inclusion of all women - great. Rather than a token gesture campaign, examples of how this can look are un-photoshopped influencers, un-photoshopped images on your website, being considerate with the models you use in other campaigns. It’s important to look beyond a campaign focused towards diversity and inclusion. What are you doing to hold your team accountable day to day?

Lastly, instead of pushing ideas of physical beauty in any form, we need to reconsider why we insist beauty is a goal that women need to pursue. Not understanding your audience is a big mistake, HUGE. Not everything has to be ‘sexy’ or ‘beautiful’, what do people really want? 

Michelle Yeadon

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Co-Founder

Weirdo

Representation isn’t a gimmick, it's a necessity. But we’re stuck in a representation crisis. Ipsos found that 76% of people agree advertising has the power to shape how people see each other. Ask anyone if they feel underrepresented or misrepresented, and it's likely they'll say yes. Our efforts need doubling down.

When it comes to thinking about how advertising represents 'real women', let’s think about what we really mean. If we're searching for more accurate representation then it's obvious 'real women' have little homogeneity. The only thing that makes a woman a woman is identifying as a woman, and who we are must be represented in all our intersectionality.

While it's become an expected trope to rely on a series of 'diverse vignettes' the underlying ambition shouldn't be avoided, and we need to think beyond surface-level attributes to how we bring to life invisible things like perspectives and values. We need to ensure diverse representation exists behind the camera, and in the strategy, creative and media teams. We need to disrupt our homogenous industry to achieve it, and we must equip our teams to carry all our good intentions into accurate representation in the work we make.

As an industry, we're obsessed with newness, but the only way to drive societal change is with continual reinforcement. If we see it as gimmicky because it’s been done before, then we need to find new ways to bring the intention to life.

Rania Robinson

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CEO & Partner

Quiet Storm

We are seeing progress in visibility and a more authentic portrayal of women and diverse groups in advertising. However, we still have a long way to go compared to entertainment platforms such as Netflix, which, whilst still having work to do, have achieved more both in front of and behind the camera. Shows like Bridgerton and Enola Holmes, amongst many more, are breaking down stereotypes and putting women in more powerful and exciting roles.

There is some consolation in the fact that the industry appears to be working hard to avoid getting it wrong in the way they have in the past. Undoubtedly, which has been aided by the ASA ban on harmful stereotyping and the negative backlash we’ve seen with brands demonstrating gender and cultural insensitivity.

It’s also encouraging to see agencies working with organisations with a deep understanding and expertise in this area to ensure they don’t get it wrong and deliver empowering storytelling. Virgin Atlantic’s new ad about ‘seeing the world differently” created with advice from Unstereotype Alliance is a good example.

In terms of representing ‘real women’, it’s hard to define exactly what that might mean simplistically. Showing a range of body sizes, age ranges and physical characteristics, which Dove paved the way for, with many brands following suit. Or showing life as it really is for most women, which better represents their life experiences, amongst other things. But whether we’re selling feminine hygiene products or baked beans, what it means and feels to be a woman can vary – with some things feeling empowering for some, making others feel uncomfortable. So, it’s important to be conscious not to treat women as one homogenous group.

Helen James

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Managing Director

CPB London

I’m not sure real women were ever a gimmick, authenticity is important in our ability to tell compelling stories, but I do think we need to move past the lazy, one dimensional representation of women in advertising. At the moment, real gets reduced to an image based portrayal of women - real is curvy, unphotoshopped, not perfect. All of this is progress (especially vs our Mad Men days) but it’s very simplistic. Our goal should be how we can move past the superficial to show a modern view of women - one she can relate to and that does not just talk to her body image. ‘Real’ should extend to women’s emotions, women’s aspirations, women’s experiences. 

Those pieces have been brilliantly captured in TV and film  (think Motherland, Big Little Lies, Fleabag) but advertising is still lagging behind. Our challenge as marketers is how to avoid using stereotypes and shortcuts due to the limited time we have to tell stories. Part of the answer is putting women at the heart of the story and storytelling process - so they themselves are creating more realistic depictions of women that, arguably, only a woman can. In Caroline Criado Perez’s book ‘Invisible Women’ she highlights the shocking imbalance in leading and speaking parts for women in film and TV and the impact this has on our culture and perspectives. My hope is that with more women in leading roles in our industry the narrative will change and we will be better able to capture  a more multi-dimensional, complex, and frankly more interesting, representation of women.