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By Samantha Skey
Advertising is a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives – from conventional ads within traditional media and emerging online formats to rogue brand placements on unclaimed public spaces. By most estimates, the average American is exposed to thousands of ads each day and will spend two years of his or her life watching television commercials1.
In the U.S. alone, total annual advertising spend is expected to reach $168 billion – a 6% jump from last year. Women, in particular, are an increasingly lucrative consumer group. Representing a $7 trillion market, they control 85% of household purchasing decisions and heavily influence the rest. A recent Forbes article suggests that women are on a trajectory to control more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth by 20302.
While the proliferation of advertising is exhilarating to those in the industry (growth!), it raises concerns among those forced to consume it. Ads sell much more than products and services. They push values and concepts of what success, family, beauty, happiness, love, femininity and masculinity should look and feel like in today’s society.
Such power demands a bit of responsibility. As advertiser focus has swung profoundly towards women, so too has the subject matter reflected in ads. Many brands are considering new, improved angles to engage women and represent their unique perspectives – or what I’ve seen some refer to as “femvertising.”
This is exciting because anyone who’s studied feminist theory (all seven of us), will understand the strong evidence of a shift towards the “female gaze” – i.e., the opposite of the “male gaze,” which suggests women have been objectified in media due to the fact that men have typically controlled the creative behind it3. The increased focus on femvertising in recent years implies that the Female Gaze is the driving force behind the use of pro-female images and messaging in advertising.
So, she who tugs the purse strings controls the Gaze, which is a good thing considering that advertising’s impact on female self-esteem is not a new issue. While ads emphasizing unattainable beauty standards, objectifying women or reinforcing gender stereotypes have long stoked the wrath of consumer activists, recent research shows that the negative impact they have on women – from lower self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and depression – is still alive and widespread. For example, a study from this year found that just 60 seconds of exposure to ads featuring underweight models can change perceptions of attractiveness for the worse in women4. Context also complicates the relationship between advertising, body image and confidence. Researchers from a Canadian university found that ads blatantly featuring idealized female images can turn on defense mechanisms in women that actually increase their self-esteem levels, while ads subtly featuring the same type of images get under our skin and conjure up feelings of self-doubt and body consciousness5.
The effect such ads have on younger generations is telling. In late 2013, a year-over-year survey6 on the influence of media and advertising taken by nearly 1,300 girls and young women ages 7 to 21 living in the U.K. revealed that 33% are not happy with their looks – up from 29% last year and 26% the year before that. Forty percent of 11- to 16-year-olds wax their bikini line and/or wear padded bras. Among 7- to 11-year-olds, half wear makeup and one in three wears high heels.
Statistics like these paint a pretty grim picture, but they also demonstrate the power advertising has to shape our views. What if, in addition to promoting the toothpaste, the car or the salty snack, ads were designed to positively change our perceptions? With all that media power, and the billions of resulting message and image impressions, there is so much room to drive positive societal beliefs and behaviors. For decades, marketers have known that consumers prefer to buy from socially responsible companies. Cause marketing took hold in the 80s, becoming a more significant strategy for many mainstream advertisers – even if, back then, the causes often felt less endemic to the brand and were often poorly integrated into advertising campaigns.
But cause-marketing is evolving as consumers become more sophisticated. As advertisers, we can effectively build awareness-generating, stereotype-busting messaging and images into ads that target women all the time – not just during breast cancer month or over the holidays. This is no longer a matter of tacking on a cause to show that our corporations are socially responsible. It is a matter of positively and supportively representing the consumer whose loyalty we seek. While aspirational (no fat, no pores, no frizz!) standards have compelled many an aspirational female buyer in the past, there is strong evidence that women are looking to support brands who represent them more authentically.
Many brands are already on board with this approach: Dove’s multi-year Campaign for Real Beauty stands out as one of the all-time best advertising initiatives designed to challenge beauty labels and inspire women of all shapes and sizes to feel beautiful and confident. It’s been successful from a revenue standpoint, too – last year’s “Real Beauty Sketches” went viral and drove U.S. sales up by 1% the first month after it launched7. This isn’t just cause marketing – this is pro-social brand building.
Always recently joined the girl-power movement with its “Like a Girl” campaign that asks women, men, boys and girls what it means to run, hit, throw or fight “like a girl.” Poignant and memorable, the commercial juxtaposes the critical, demeaning interpretations of the older teens with the enthusiastic, positive way young pre-teen girls demonstrate what the expression means to them.
Sheryl Sandberg, whose LeanIn.org nonprofit brings the conversation of women and leadership to the forefront, has made it easy for the rest of us to participate in pro-female advertising. Sandberg teamed up with Getty Images to launch a new collection of 2,500 stock images that offer a more accurate and empowering portrayal of women and girls of all sizes, ages, shapes, races and backgrounds. Here’s what’s not in the collection: idealized images of perfectly groomed, soft-lit women shopping online (who smiles at her laptop while paying bills?), preparing dinner for their families, running on treadmills (without sweating) or laughing while having lunch with their lovely and unencumbered girlfriends. Marketers are starting to buy into the idea that consumers prefer advertising served up with realistic portrayals of women. An article on CNN.com reported that sales of the Getty Lean In collection have jumped 54% since it launched8.
I hope that more brands are inspired to get in on pro-female marketing. It’s a mutually beneficial approach: using images and messaging that inspire rather than shame should help us to build deeper, more meaningful connections with this generation of women and those to come. But this strategy is not for the faint of heart: Brands that embrace femvertising will need to walk the talk in terms of corporate accountability beyond their advertising efforts. As this trend evolves, I fully expect we’ll find some “fem-washers” out there who avail themselves to the benefits of female-supportive advertising but fail to see how it impacts their own corporate culture and policies. Regardless, it’s worth the risk. Working toward the potential for positive impact always is. Especially if doing so means our daughters can avoid ad-inflicted insecurity and revel in the beauty of their very own Female Gaze.
Samantha Skey is the Chief Revenue Officer at SheKnows. Contact her on Twitter at @samskey7. To learn more about SheKnows, visit www.sheknows.com.