Beach bodies, boobs, girl bosses: Have brands got to grips with how to portray women in ads?

As brands rush to talk about ’empowering women’ on International Women’s Day, do Britons feel women are represented better in advertising now than five years ago?

It’s been five years since that Protein World ad asking whether women were ‘beach body ready’ sparked outrage across the nation. American Apparel and its penchant for underage-looking girls was still very much alive and kicking. Most fashion brands hadn’t heard of diversity and were only showing women of a certain build in ads and often in a hyper-sexual way.

The likes of Missguided and Prettylittlething continue to have ads banned for showing female models wearing very few clothes, while ads like People Per Hour’s ‘You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing’ show that the days of peddling outdated gender stereotypes are far from over.

It was only in January that KFC apologised for an ad in Australia showing two young boys staring at a woman as she adjusted her breasts.

But there are signs that things are changing, albeit slowly. There has been a generally positive change in the way women are represented in advertising compared to the Protein World days.

In fact, 50% of Britons believe women are represented more positively in advertising compared with five years ago, according to a Marketing Week and YouGov survey of 2,000 UK adults, while only 6% feel women are being portrayed in a more negative way.

Interestingly, more men believe women are represented ‘much more positively’ than women do, while women are more inclined to say representation is either ‘a little more negative’ or ‘much more negative’.

When it comes to the objectification of women in advertising, 38% believe women are less objectified than five years ago and 12% believe they are more objectified. The majority agree it is ‘about the same’.

Again, women have a less positive view on how they are portrayed. A greater number of women than men say they are ‘much more objectified’ or ‘a little more objectified’. A greater number of men, meanwhile, believe women are ‘much less objectified’.

“Both of these things suggest that whatever changes brands have made around the representation of women in their advertising over the past five years, some men and women have interpreted them slightly differently,” says YouGov research director, Karen Murawski.

“Given women represent half of the potential buying public, brands might want to dig deeper into this so they can further increase the engagement and persuasion power of their advertising.”

In the case of women’s representation, we need to understand identity beyond gender in isolation.

Aline Santos, Unilever

Perhaps women are more likely to remember when, in 2017, Audi compared buying a vehicle to finding a wife? Or how about when estate agent Marsh & Parsons compared a woman to property? “A charming period property with a modern extension,” read the poster copy underneath an image of an older man in a suit with a young woman draped over him.

And of course there was Coca-Cola’s ‘Brutally Refreshing’ Sprite ad in 2016, which targeted men with lines such as: “She’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo”, “A 2 at 10 is a 10 at 2” and “You’re not popular, you’re easy”.

Inclusion agenda

There is a positive story to tell for the representation of ethnic minority women in ads. An overwhelming majority of Britons (64%) feel they are represented more now than five years ago and only 2% believe there has been a decline in representation.

This is a step in the right direction. However, it was not long ago that Dove made an ad showing a black woman turning white after using its lotion.

Furthermore, while ethnic minority women are being represented more in ads than five years ago, many brands still fail to portray them in a realistic and positive way, free of unconscious bias.

Much of this comes down to the fact black women continue to be severely underrepresented in marketing teams. Marketing Week’s 2020 career salary survey revealed 88% of the 3,883 respondents identified as white, with just 5% identifying as Asian, 4% as mixed race and 2% as black. The gender bias is clear too, given 60.9% of all survey respondents were female, yet their presence considerably lessens the more senior the roles become.

Hosiery brand Nubian Skin won TfL and City Hall’s Diversity in Advertising competition last month, securing £500,000 worth of ad space on the TfL network for a campaign aiming to show black people in a more positive and natural light.

Why is the beauty industry still failing women of colour?

“In lingerie, a lot of images of black women are hyper-sexualised and not what I would want reflected as myself,” the brand’s founder and CEO, Ade Hassan, told Marketing Week.

“As a black woman I can pull from my experience and put that into a campaign. If you have a team that doesn’t have any black people or ethnic minorities on it, it’s going to be hard to portray them in a way that’s natural because you’re not pulling from experience. Having people who are from ethnic minority backgrounds in decision-making positions is incredibly important.”

Channel 4 is another organisation trying to encourage more diversity in advertising. Last year, as part of its Diversity in Advertising Award, the broadcaster gave £1m to The Royal Air Force (RAF) for a campaign challenging sexist stereotypes and the clichéd portrayal of women in advertising.

It followed a Channel 4 survey that found the main problem with ads featuring women was not the levels of representation, but the roles in which women are portrayed. In the 1,000 most-watched TV ads over a four week period, more than 40% showed women in clichéd “homemaker” or “house wife” roles.

The Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) brought its ban on ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes into effect last summer. However, the effectiveness of the rules have faced scrutiny, because they do not ban gender stereotypes outright, but rather identify specific harms that can be prevented.

This means the rule does not prevent ads from featuring a woman doing the shopping, a man doing DIY tasks, glamorous or healthy looking people, or ads that only feature a single gender.

Have the ASA’s new gender stereotyping rulings gone too far?

In the first six months the UK’s ad watchdog received 516 complaints about 229 individual cases/specific ads. Of these, brands that have had ads banned for stereotyping women in what the ASA deems to be a ‘harmful’ way include PC Specialist, VW and People Per Hour.

It is difficult to pinpoint how many of those complaints have been about the objectification of women, because it is not a specific ad rule. But brands that have had ads banned for objectifying women since the new rules came into place include Prettylittlething, People Per Hour and air conditioning company Not Just Cooling.

The business case for unstereotyping

Beyond the seemingly obvious reductive and problematic nature of stereotypes, there is a strong business case for making less stereotypical advertising too.

Research by Kantar shows advertising that is free from stereotypes and depicts people in progressive, forward looking roles substantially outperforms ads which consumers consider to be less progressive.

At Unilever, for example, Kantar found unstereotypical and progressive advertising creates 37% more branded impact and a 28% increase in purchase intent. The FMCG giant is chair of the The Unstereotype Alliance, a platform convened by UN Women in 2017 to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes in all media and advertising content.

Unilever’s executive vice president of global marketing and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Aline Santos, insists that marketers need to go beyond the “over-simplistic objective” of simply featuring specific groups in more and in different contexts.

“In the case of women’s representation, we need to understand identity beyond gender in isolation,” Santos says. “For example, research by the Unstereotype Alliance showed that in many markets, while many women feel underrepresented in society, this increases even more with single women. People are multi-dimensional and it is important to portray real and compelling personalities in our advertising.

“As marketers, we need to do the work to become aware of as many of the stereotypes and wider unconscious biases we hold as possible. That way, we can tackle them head-on, breaking conventions and making our brands much more engaging for many more of our consumers.”