BITE Focus

A New Female Narrative

From dismantling body taboos to educating the next generation, celebrating strength and empowering difference, brands are using language to champion ordinary women defying expectations.

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE


‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. The phrase was a mantra often chanted in my house when we were growing up. We were taught to turn the other cheek when people spoke rudely and to not respond in kind.

It’s something I still live by but, when I really think about it, language matters. Words matter, especially when they come loaded with a predetermined meaning often around race, size, age and sexual orientation. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to the media’s representation of women.

Slowly but surely though, the language used to talk about women is being reshaped. The narrative around women is shifting, empowering honest conversation and dismantling historical tropes. We’ve seen this in Nike’s latest campaign that takes the word crazy, frequently used insult women, and turns it on its head. As the New York Times writes, ‘crazy women’ is nothing new: “Women being labelled hysterical or crazy as a way to degrade them dates back centuries. ‘Hysteria’ – which comes from the Greek word for womb, hystera – was one of the first mental health conditions attributed to only women.”

From Nike’s ‘Dream Crazier’ to Mothercare’s ‘Body Proud Mums’, we are seeing brands using language, paired up with imagery, to enable inclusivity and empowerment. This powerful visual and linguistic shift is starting to address, and dismantle, previous assumptions made about women.

The responsibility for this lies with brands and their agency partners to replace lazy, broad-brush stereotypes with our reality. The ads we are starting to see, particularly released around this year’s International Women’s Day, are beginning to reflect what we actually see when we look in the mirror.

Mothercare, 'Body Proud Mums' by mcgarrybowen

Real women want to see real bodies

As women, we know what our bodies look like. We see them every day. But unfortunately we don’t see them accurately portrayed in the media. And we need to. Because it allows you to feel more comfortable and accepting about your own body, whatever shape or size.

Off the back of research from Mothercare which revealed that over half of new mothers did not feel proud of their body after giving birth, the brand worked with mcgarrybowen to create ‘Body Proud Mums’. The imagery shows the reality of what giving birth does to a woman’s body by focusing on the beauty and reality of the post-birth body. Starring 10 diverse, real mums with their new babies, we see pillowy tummies, engorged breasts, scars and stretch marks celebrated under the tagline “Beautiful. Isn’t she.” They are a powerful visual statement and an important one, as 80% of mothers in the UK said they’d compared their post-birth bodies to unrealistic images, often on social media.

Many women struggle to embrace their bodies, often feeling embarrassment at what feels like a simple task, for example getting a bra fitted. Sainsbury’s Tu wanted to shift this mindset with ‘All Boobs Welcome’ from Portas. All the women in the ad were street cast, and the crew that worked on the campaign were all female. After realising many women do not enjoy bra shopping and are too embarrassed to ask for help, Tu also set up a pop-up shop for five days in London, allowing women to receive bra fittings from a professional and take part in creative workshops.

A new sense of attitude

There is a new undercurrent at play when it comes to the rhetoric around what women can and can’t achieve. Several brands have chosen to address the assumptions frequently made about women, to debunk archaic clichés and show off a powerful state of mind and a new sense of attitude.

There is perhaps no greater emulation of this attitude than the tennis champion Serena Williams, who is the star of Nike’s latest campaign ‘Dream Crazier’ by Wieden+Kennedy Portland. In the voiceover, Williams draws our attention to the words that have been used to undermine women over the years as she says, “If they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do”. She speaks over a montage of some of the best female athletes in the world defying the ‘norm’ and with it, society’s expectations. It is an unbridled celebration of women’s strength, marking the start of Nike’s celebration of female athletes ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this June.

The winning campaign from Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award this year came from The Royal Air Force and Engine with ‘No Room for Clichés’. The campaign voiceover outlines the lazy and outdated stereotypical views often expressed about women, whether that’s around aging, skin or hair care. The words are juxtaposed with the visuals however, as we are shown the reality of life as a female RAF recruit, from medic to pilot to intelligence. A similar attitude was on display in the US Air Force’s latest female-focused recruitment campaign from GSD&M, ‘Origin Story’ which said that anyone who joins has the potential to be a superhero. Both campaigns powerfully refute the conventional stereotypes about what women can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do.

Dismantling the stigmas

Periods, uncomfortable sex and menopause are just a few of the things women experience that once upon a time wouldn’t have been spoken about, let alone taken centre stage in a major ad. But Holland & Barrett has chosen to ignore that history in their latest slot ‘Me. No. Pause’ from Pablo London. The agency conducted interviews with women around the UK, revealing that many of the symptoms of menopause lie under the surface and aren’t visible to others. So, they designed a campaign, for which the OOH ads became the winner of the TFL Women We See competition, that showed a diverse range of women asserting their identity and going about their lives despite the challenges of the menopause.

Sex, and sexual pleasure, is more often than not portrayed through the male gaze. Sex is about male desire and male satisfaction. Durex has chosen to reframe the focus in ‘Ladies, Let’s Lube’ by Havas London. The brand’s aim is to destigmatise female sexual discomfort, something many women feel, but do nothing about. The campaign is designed to normalise lubrication and promote the Durex Naturals Intimate Gel.

Under the creative direction of AMV BBDO, Bodyform has championed women’s bodies, and the reality of what actually goes on, ‘down there’. Despite a huge amount of pressure to look and be perfect in that department, women’s genitals are rarely spoken about. In their latest campaign ‘Viva la Vulva’, the brand celebrates the beautiful variety of vulvas in a range of media, from hand puppets to singing shells, in the hope that they can create a more open and shame-free dialogue.

Giving the next generation a leg-up

The beauty of pioneers is that, while it may not be the current generation who will benefit from their actions, you can bet the one after will be eternally grateful.

Across every industry we are seeing the gender pay gap examined and very slowly dismantled. In slots aired during the Oscars ceremony, Visa wanted to address pay disparity in Hollywood. ‘Money is Changing’ by Decoded directed by Gia Coppola stars women, like twice-nominated costume designer Arianne Phillips and veteran producer Melissa Jones, talking about how they changed their circumstances by speaking up.

Many a woman in history have carved a path for those coming up behind them. And Café Grand’Mere wants to celebrate them. In ‘Thank You Grandma’ by CLM BBDO (Paris), the brand focuses on the women who came before us, who paved the way for change by being the first. Using archival footage, we are told the stories of the generation who fought for equal treatment and social change.

A seismic cultural shift

Ultimately, when it comes to new messaging, the hardest reality to shift is our deeply embedded cultural one. When a perception is ingrained in culture, it takes a seismic moment, and more often than not a collective voice, to shift it. It’s this shift that SK-II wanted to work towards in their latest campaign from Forsman & Bodenfors, ‘Meet Me Halfway’. The ad examines the pressures placed on ‘leftover women’, a derogatory term used for young women who are not married by the age of 30. The brand’s documentary features three single women who initiate conversations with their parents about the subject. Although the ad’s focus is on the Chinese market, the sentiment at its heart will resonate globally. These women take their futures into their own hands and only hope their parents can accept them for it.

There are many practices across the world that still take place because, well, they’ve always taken place. Sometimes it takes a controversial symbol to break free from tradition. The Times of India, working with FCB Ulka, decided to create just such a symbol around Sindur Khela, a subset of the Durga Puja festival. Historically, on the last day of the festival, married women cover each other in bright red paint, the symbol of a bride’s pride. But, if you are single, LGBT or widowed, you are excluded. So, the paper created a new “symbol of sisterhood”, a double dotted bindi, to promote inclusion and highlight that now, ‘No Conditions Apply’.

Related Tags

feminism Diversity