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Five years on: How This Girl Can is still breaking boundaries

The evolution of the ground-breaking campaign is a testament to the ability of marketing to move from advertising to activism.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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There are few more compelling examples of the power of insight to drive effective, meaningful marketing that This Girl Can. Sport England’s genre-defining campaign is rooted in the insight that the fear of judgement by others is the primary barrier holding women back from participating in sport. A fear which wraps its tentacles across almost every aspect of women’s lives. From concerns over appearance, the original Sport England research found that one woman in four says that they hate the way they look when they exercise or play sport. To the omnipresent guilt amongst women that they are spending time on themselves, rather than looking after their families when exercising. It's a pressure which has only exacerbated amidst the myriad demands of lockdown.  

Kate Dale, Campaign Lead for This Girl Can, explains: “At the beginning of lockdown there was a sense there was a right way to do it. A feeling like we should all be starting new hobbies and getting very fit. But the reality for a lot of women is that we have more demands on our time, and more financial and mental wellbeing challenges.”

We’re celebrating all the women getting active in the ways that work for them, no matter what life throws in their way.

Kate Dale

“There’s no right way to get active”

It is clear that while so much has changed since the original campaign broke on ITV on the 12th January 2015, the insight behind the campaign and the gendered challenges and judgements women face when it comes to getting active remain. Challenges which are taken on by the latest campaign which celebrates the ways women are keeping active in lockdown.

The spot, created by FCB Inferno, features Katy, 43, who founded ‘Blaze Trails’ a community of walking parents and children. Walking with her baby on her back and her toddler helped her overcome feelings of isolation in lockdown. While Aneesa, a 43-year-old mother of two from South London, began attending HIIT and dance sessions over Zoom after losing her income at the beginning of lockdown. 

Dale explains that the campaign celebrates the fact that “there’s no right way to get active; there never was,” She explains: “Just like there’s no right way to do lockdown. We’re celebrating all the women getting active in the ways that work for them, no matter what life throws in their way. Saying it’s okay to do it when you want, how you want. The pandemic has given many of us a renewed appreciation for the benefits of mental and physical health, and we hope the film will inspire other women to want to feel that joy of moving, whether they’re jogging with their kids, squeezing in a HIIT session in between meetings or trying to walk instead of get the bus to get their steps up.”

From a marketing moment to movement

The original This Girl Can campaign for Sport England revolutionised sports marketing for women. By showing women, "sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox", the activity tackled the participation gap between men and women in sport. It is estimated that 2.8 million women who saw the campaign have taken part in sport as a result. 

In the UK there is a significant gender gap in sport. By every measure fewer women than men play sport and two million fewer 14 to 40-year-old women take part in sport when compared with men, despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active. While research from Women in Sport shows that girls as young as five are defining themselves as ‘not sporty’. Only 10% of 11 to 13-year-old girls currently fulfil the recommended daily guideline for 80 minutes of activity. 

These are deep-rooted societal issues which require long-term investment and continued commitment to challenge the societal norms around women in sport. 

Lived experience in advertising

The longevity of the This Girl Can campaign is rooted not just in its creative tone and energy but in the diversity of the lived experience on screen. Original director Kim Gehrig’s commitment to street casting has clearly been prioritised by this spot’s director Partizan’s Ali Kurr. Real stories and representation are the red thread that run between five years of this trailblazing campaign.

The success of the campaign is also rooted in its ability to recognise and respond to the pinch points in women’s lives which stop them from exercising. Often these barriers are highly gendered. Consider, for example, the degree to which women are shown to have ‘me time’ in advertising by brands from soft drink giants to TV channels. In contrast men have hobbies, pursuits and passions. In the context of this framework being active, whilst vital for women’s mental and physical wellbeing, is all-too often judged as inherently selfish. 

Notably, the latest spot features Katy, who is shown balancing her routine of long-walks and breastfeeding her six-month-old baby. This is possibly one of the first times that breastfeeding has been shown in the context of sport advertising, a reflection of how this campaign is still steadfastly pushing boundaries five years on. It is challenging the silent message of exclusion reflected in the fact that despite the fact it is 2020, no major sports brand has created a sports nursing bra.

The campaign also features Hannah, who is seen using yoga to ease heavy menstrual cramps. While gym-going mother and daughter Patrice and Yvonne are using exercise to combat their symptoms of menopause and Polycystic ovary syndrome. 

Sharon Jiggins, Chief Marketing Officer at FCB Inferno explains: “It has been remarkable hearing the inspiring stories that the This Girl Can community have been sharing about how they are managing to stay active despite lockdown throwing up a myriad more barriers.”

That’s why it is so important we keep talking about those topics such as menstruation and menopause to normalise the conversations around them.

Sharon Jiggins

The journey to liberate women from fear of judgement 

Historically marketers and agencies grow tired of brand campaigns and straplines long before consumers. Yet five years on, it is clear there is no such malaise for This Girl Can, a campaign which clearly has so much more to do when it comes to liberating women from fear of judgement.  

Sport England research has shown the ongoing effectiveness of the campaign with almost three million women being inspired to be more active by the work. In 2020 the campaign aims to inspire 250,000 more women to be more active.

The campaign has created a vibrant community across social media and this campaign is being supported by influencers and commentators including fitness YouTubers Lucy Wyndham-Read and Tally Rye, journalists Poorna Bell and Bryony Gordon, and comedienne and TV presenter Judi love, who have all given space within their channels to share the women’s stories and drive conversations around women’s experiences of keeping active during lockdown.

As Jiggins explains, the campaign is not just a celebration of how women are keeping active but also a reminder that the barriers that were there before lockdown were still very much present during it and remain as we emerge from it. She adds: “That’s why it is so important we keep talking about those topics such as menstruation and menopause to normalise the conversations around them.”

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