Interviews

Dr Rebecca Swift, Global Head of Creative Insights, Getty Images

As a driving force in the ground-breaking Project #ShowUs, Rebecca Swift is successfully changing the visual narrative of advertising.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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“You have to step up and make a decision. You can make waves and challenge inequality, or you can do nothing.” Dr Rebecca Swift, Global Head of Creative Insights at Getty Images is unequivocal on the need to change both the visual narrative surrounding women in advertising and the lack of diversity behind the lens.

Maintaining the status quo and doing nothing was never going to be an option for the energetic Swift. At Getty Images she is a driving force in Project #ShowUs, the drive to create the world’s largest stock photo library created by women, inclusive of all female-identifying and non-binary individuals. She explains, “As a senior female creative I feel a responsibility to make change for the next generation.”

The #ShowUs campaign, which recently picked up a Glass Lion for change at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, is the work of Publicis Sapient New York, Dove and Girlgaze, the platform which connects brands with female-identifying creatives. The action-orientated project is adding 5,000 new photographs of 179 women from 39 countries to Getty’s photo library. It aims to create a more “culturally representative vision of female beauty, confidence and success”. In short, it aims to completely revolutionise the visual narrative for women in advertising.

As a senior female creative I feel a responsibility to make change for the next generation.

Dr Rebecca Swift

Building a new narrative

The origin of the idea was initially pitched by Publicis Sapient in New York, who set out to “break the algorithm of stock photography”. It was a project that also aimed to help bridge the gap between talk and action when it comes to brands embracing diversity. “The Dove Campaign for Real Women launched 15 years ago but when an academic talks about the best example of authenticity in marketing, Dove is still the go to brand,” explains Swift.

The campaign is also focused on driving diversity behind the lens and the #ShowUs foundation is helping to fund female photographers. “Creating more opportunities for more women creatives is crucial,” says Swift. “Winning the Glass Lion was great, but this was always about changing the world at large,” she adds.

Winning the Glass Lion was great, but this was always about changing the world at large.

Dr Rebecca Swift

A pitch for inclusivity

The campaign included the creation of 39 different briefs, written in 28 different languages, a comprehensive process which demanded a laser-focus on smashing stereotypes. “Each brief was carefully crafted to ensure it was focused on how to break stereotypes. We took all the photographers through training about how to be a commercial photographer. You can’t be complacent about ensuring diversity in the pitch process,” explains Swift. 

The whole point of the project was to create images that would actually be used by brands in their campaigns and marketing materials, so it was vital to keep that aim in mind in all aspects of the process. “Each image really reflects the aesthetic values of the people who worked on it,” adds Swift.

Uniquely, in each and every shot the model chose what she wore, as well as the style of her own hair and makeup. She also chose the caption to accompany the shot, a thoughtfulness of approach which revealed a significant cultural shift in definitions of femininity. “A lot of the words they were using weren’t currently in our library,” Swift explains. Terms like Boss Lady, Queen, Fierce, as well as deeper emotional descriptors such as belonging, feeling validated, represented. “I don’t think the advertising world is currently ready to be searching like that. A lot of the time they weren’t describing physical attributes,” she adds.

What we have seen is a move away from the beauty industry defining what is beautiful towards self-definition. Yet often when you look at the style of images and copy not much has changed; it’s formulaic.

Dr Rebecca Swift

A new female lens

The new visual language that Project #ShowUs has ushered in is of particular significance for brands as it is evidence of a shift away from the aesthetics, language and targeting approach of advertising’s bygone age. For example, the emotional descriptors favoured by the models were often ageless, while in contrast contemporary beauty brands continue to treat women’s age as being akin to a used-by date, often urging them to ‘fight’ the signs of ageing. This shift to embracing consumers’ mindsets and behaviours, as opposed to diminishing them to just age brackets or physical descriptors cannot be over-estimated.

The #ShowUs work also reflects a shift in spectrum of beauty imagery, which was broader and inherently less judgemental than traditional advertising may lead you to believe. “Dove sponsors Love Island and that part of the spectrum of beauty imagery, but the key is you don’t have to feel bad if you don’t look like that,” says Swift.

Embracing the full spectrum of post-influencer culture is increasingly vital for success. As Swift explains, “Visual social media is driven by women. What we have seen is a move away from the beauty industry defining what is beautiful towards self-definition. Yet often when you look at the style of images and copy not much has changed; it’s formulaic.”

Brands tend to come to us and say how do you represent diversity? How do you capture the essence of your target audience into just one person without resorting to stereotyping? Awareness is growing.

Dr Rebecca Swift

The authenticity effect

In the midst of this fundamental shift then why are so many brands still reliant on formulaic definitions of female beauty? Swift cites fear of change as a key challenge. She says, “We still have a lot of clients who aren’t ready to go there yet. Yet everything we develop is moving towards this more authentic approach.”

When it comes to diversity the fact remains that many marketers and agencies are still too fixated on their rear-view mirror, with an over-reliance on what was perceived to be effective marketing in the past. Yet Swift notes a growing awareness of the need for change. She explains, “Brands tend to come to us and say how do you represent diversity? How do you capture the essence of your target audience into just one person without resorting to stereotyping? Awareness is growing.”

Sharing success stories can help the whole industry. By sharing data, we can show not just how many more likes a campaign got but how it drove real business results.

Dr Rebecca Swift

Building a new visual narrative

For #ShowUs to reach its full potential the campaign needs more than just awareness; it requires tangible business results that will drive wholesale change. “Sharing success stories can help the whole industry. By sharing data, we can show not just how many more likes a campaign got but how it drove real business results,” explains Swift. To this end data from clients using images from the #ShowUs library is already being collated.

Yet the ongoing backlash to the ASA guidelines on gender stereotyping is a timely reminder of the resistance to change from some quarters of the industry. Nonetheless shifting the visual language of advertising is vital if brands are to stay relevant to consumers. It’s a shift that doesn’t always require massive investments; sometimes all this requires is a micro-action. “Generation Z notice, for example, a disposable coffee cup in a picture, so it is these little changes that make a difference,” explains Swift.

You need to empower the whole hierarchy to make these decisions. Just give the room to experiment and make things happen.

Dr Rebecca Swift

Change by stealth

It is all too easy for creatives to dismiss stock photography as biased. But Swift believes that driving true change requires buy in from across the industry, as well as a cultural commitment for organisations to foster environments where creatives and marketers alike feel empowered to drive diversity from talk into action. “You need to empower the whole hierarchy to make these decisions. Just give the room to experiment and make things happen,” Swift adds.

For those creatives and marketers who find themselves in organisations reluctant to embrace this change, Swift’s advice is equal parts empathetic but energetic: “Be guerrilla if needs be but just make change happen”.

Projects like #ShowUs help to give creatives the tools to make that change happen, while simultaneously driving diversity behind the lens, work that shows that stereotypes are not just damaging to society, but bad for business too. Changing the narrative can start with just a single image.

 

Dr Rebecca Swift will be lifting the lid on how #ShowUs is helping to smash stereotypes in a panel at BITE LIVE. Tickets now on sale.

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