Sunday, 12 January 2014

Women & Responsible Advertising: A Difficult Relationship

Special K’s 'Shhhhut Down Fat Talk' campaign in the US follows in the same welcome steps as Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’. Both campaigns remind us, women, of how we unnecessarily put ourselves down on account of our looks and encourage us to quit this relentless self-criticism. These brands are leading the way in creating a new kind of feminine ideal to strive for – not the polished ‘Barbie’ look that is impossible for real women to attain, but a healthy, natural confidence that ultimately makes women happier and more attractive.  

Whilst this trend is highly commendable, it is clearly driven by a commercial market opportunity. Women who buy into these brands are tired of ads telling them they are not young, thin or beautiful enough – instead they want to identify with the real-looking self-assured women from the likes of Special K, Dove & No7 (see below). Marketing directors of these companies can deservedly pat themselves on the back - they are delivering shareholder value AND driving an ethical cultural trend. 

That advertising is critical to shaping our social and cultural views (including the role of women) has been clear for long enough. But when the commissioning CMO’s KPIs are sales figures and market share, the campaign’s objectives have to reflect that. It is wonderful when brands can successfully differentiate themselves on the grounds of meaningful values (e.g. Patagonia), yet marketing’s success is defined in commercial terms. Whilst all advertising has to be responsible, its primary role is to represent the brand that pays for its existence, rather than being the moral guiding light of cultural and social norms.*

This raises interesting questions for brands that are not specifically positioned as ‘empowering’ contemporary women. Asda’s Christmas 2012 ad caused an uproar because some felt its portrayal of the tired mum doing all the work reinforced outdated gender stereotypes. At the same time, many mums loved the ad and felt that it was a realistic representation of their roles. In fact, market research showed that in 86% of Asda’s customers’ homes women were indeed in charge of the Christmas preparations.  

It would have been ideal if Asda had found a way to engage their target audience at the same time as promoting gender equality. But is it fair to hold them accountable for not pushing this agenda further than their customers would have been comfortable with?   

We are right to recoil at the sexist ads from the 1950’s. Their objectified representation of women owes a lot to the fact that most advertising executives were men, who (in the absence of women in their midst) propagated the existing conservative attitudes towards gender roles rather than challenging them. Yet we also have to be sympathetic to these men, much as we might hate their views. After all, their livelihoods depended on selling a particular product - not on liberating women.

As a society we have done very well in recognizing the importance of responsible advertising and holding accountable those who trespass it.  However, commercial brands will always have to promote the values that can deliver the best commercial returns. It is therefore our responsibility as consumers to make sure that companies’ commercial and ethical objectives are aligned, by choosing products and services from the brands we respect. That way the marketers’ challenge will become ‘how do I do the right thing in a differentiated way’ rather than ‘do I prioritise my job or my conscience.’ 

*This excludes campaigns commissioned specifically to promote certain cultural and social values, e.g. anti-discrimination campaigns by public services