Yes, Marketing Is Still Sexist

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in her words

Despite women’s progress in many parts of society, advertisements still consistently cast women as secondary.

Credit...Andrea D'Aquino

Aug. 26, 2021, 12:03 p.m. ET

— Jane Cunningham, one of the authors of “Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It.”


In 2019, Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts — founders of a marketing consultancy — were invited to a conference to speak about how the marketing industry was failing women. Over 15 years, they’d conducted 4,000 hours’ worth of interviews and discussion groups with women about their needs, their desires and where brands were falling short. And brands were really falling short.

As they were about to go onstage, a man in attendance introduced himself and explained that their expertise was not needed — as far as ads were concerned, inequality between the sexes had ended. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t think there is any problem with marketing to women now,” they recounted the man saying.

Before Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Roberts could stick it to him, and tell him why he was wrong, he simply strode off.

So begins their book, “Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It.” The title is a nod to Rebecca Solnit’s concept of mansplaining, a term that refers to a man explaining things to a woman, unsolicited, and whether he is an expert on the topic or not.

Back when they worked at ad agencies in the early 2000s, Ms. Roberts and Ms. Cunningham, were — as women on the team — commonly assigned the accounts that targeted women, for products such as feminine hygiene items, laundry detergents and cleaning supplies. “When we presented our briefs, there was a glazed unresponsive feel to the meetings,” Ms. Cunningham said.

Over and over again, “We noticed how female customers were perceived in ways that were at best inaccurate and at worst diminishing and dismissive,” they wrote.

Between 1980 and 2010, women in commercials were shown in workplace settings only 4 percent of the time; frequently they were shown in kitchens, waxing poetic about the products they were selling. They were shown in kitchens so often that creatives referred to the trope in whispers as 2Cs in a K.” “The K was for kitchen and you can guess what the Cs stood for,” they wrote.

Since then, little has changed. In 2019, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that ads up for awards at the prestigious Cannes Lions advertising festival depicted male characters working almost twice as often as female characters. Male characters also outnumbered female characters two-to-one and had twice as much screen time and speaking time. Another study conducted by Ebiquity, a media consultancy, found that, of the ads aired in 2016, only 4 percent showed women in leadership positions.

According to Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Roberts, part of the inequality has stemmed from who fills high-level roles inside advertising agencies. While there are about equal numbers of women and men in advertising overall, 71 percent of creative directors — the role with the most creative control — are men.

In 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority in the United Kingdom banned advertisements that depicted gender stereotypes — no more commercials where only women scrub the floors or where men are dumbfounded by the workings of a diaper. The U.K. standards are certainly more robust than those in the U.S., said Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communication at Cornell. But the U.K. also wasn’t the first to take action: Several countries have laws and codes on the books that, to varying degrees, prevent gender discrimination.

In their book, Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Roberts argue that despite women’s progress in many parts of society, advertisements still consistently cast women as secondary. “The majority of brands still speak to women from a male perspective, explaining to them what they are and telling them what they can be,” they write.

In Her Words spoke with Ms. Cunningham and Ms. Roberts over Zoom to discuss the lingering and often covert sexism in marketing.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What does marketing to women look like in 2021?

Roberts: Brands appear to be presenting a more positive and progressive message for women, but in reality, all that’s happened is a trick of the language. Age-defying has turned into “ageless” and dieting has coded itself as “wellness.” In the book we describe this as “sneaky sexism.” The guy in the white lab coat has become this silky shrink voice — lean into this, you can be anything, be bold, be strong — which puts the onus on the individual to change themselves and, this time, their behavior, not just their appearance.

When it comes to marketing, what do women say they want, but aren’t getting?

Cunningham: The fundamental misunderstanding in the way that marketing models work is the perception that women’s aim and ambition in life starts and stops with achieving male approval and patronage. In essence, getting married and having kids. Everything leading up to that is preparation and training to achieve it, and everything after that is a decline into beige-ness and invisibility. So for kids, marketing to girls is all about being kind, being sweet, being affectionate, looking after things. For young women, it’s all about your appearance, making sure you’re always as perfect as you possibly can be in order to seek and achieve male approval, and then of course you become the perfect mom, delighted and endlessly happy to have this baby.

But when you actually talk to women, their aspirations are not, in fact, to be beautiful through the male lens; it’s to feel comfortable in their own skin. It isn’t to be dependent; it’s to maintain their independence, particularly their financial independence.

The great female-made brands that we talk about in the book, like Frida Mom or Third Love, make women feel seen as they are, not as men want them to be. That’s the big shift that needs to happen. Brands need to stop telling women how to be, and start being in service to them.

But big brands have long had success with criticizing women to sell products.

Cunningham: Even if these smaller brands are not a direct threat to the bigger and more traditional brands, they are throwing into relief just how outmoded and old-fashioned big-brand marketing is. Once you’ve seen Frida Mom, a lot of the stuff that comes out of traditional brands starts to look really strange, really twisted and untrue.

How big of a role is social media in changing this?

Cunningham: Historically there weren’t channels available to women to talk to each other about how objectionable they found this stuff. Women were sort of forced to consume it. They didn’t really know whether everybody else was thinking, “wait a minute, this seems pretty punishing.” But now social media, for all of its faults, has also been a brilliant way for women to discuss what they find really objectionable about brands, and it’s been galvanizing.

Does the way things are marketed have a real impact on gender identity and self-concept?

Cunningham: There is a really big body of work around the impact of marketing and just how powerful it is — young women are consuming something like 10,000 messages a day from brands. Think about the collective impact that can have when the same things are being said over and over again, which are usually: Be thinner, be blonder, be more feminine, be hairless, be whiter.

Cumulatively, it does have an effect. But why not sell products in a way that is going to have a positive effect on women, not just young women but all women? Why does it have to be so fraught? Women have enough real problems that need to be solved by brands and products, you don’t need to make them up.

How does marketing aimed at men differ?

Cunningham: The themes are very different. They are about power, individualism and strength.

Roberts: The nature of the relationship in the masculine space is much more endorsing and positive. That critical eye just isn’t there; it’s more of we see you, we endorse you and we really like you.

You write that brands even spend more on ads targeting men.

Cunningham: Yes, we talk about the domestic brands, the brands like Pampers or Tide. If they decide to target the male audience instead of doling out the usual slice-of-life formula that women get in marketing, out comes John Legend and hilarious jokes and brilliant high production values as if with men you have to be properly creative. Whereas women don’t need that, you can give them any old rubbish and they will happily receive the message because they are so invested in laundry detergent or nappies.

It was such a fascinating statistic from your book that 20 percent of commercials depict a woman with her head thrown back laughing.

Cunningham: Yeah, and never being funny. Only 3 percent of ads are women being funny themselves.

Roberts: And they are almost always smiling, and if they aren’t smiling, they are looking really hostile; it’s very polar.

Cunningham: And, you know, the older woman completely disappears. Only one in 10 ads that feature a woman features a woman who’s over 50.

It’s a huge missed opportunity. Also older women are fed up with looking at marketing that just features women under 30.

Yeah, if you only watched ads, you’d think older women just have bladder issues.

Cunningham: Or that they are a bit bonkers. They are sort of, you know, ditsy and eccentric and odd. They can’t just be women who are over 50 and getting on with their lives who have jobs and children

Roberts: It’s not just older women who get overlooked. It’s women of color. Poor women. Massive swaths that just don’t get seen because of this narrow way that marketing has set its dials, which is around this good, white, slim, young, pleasing archetype.

Cunningham: If you talk to these marketing executives about this, you know, they say, “But won’t that put everybody else off if you show older women?” First of all, who cares, because older women have the money. But also no, younger women don’t go around saying, “Ew, she’s over 50, how disgusting!” It’d be more like, “Thank god, I have some role models now.” It’s just a complete misunderstanding about the way that women think.

As consumers, what power do we have to change how products are marketed?

Cunningham: The way that women can influence marketing is spending with the brands that are doing the right thing by women and refusing to buy from brands that are very evidently trying to keep women in their place, and/or the place they think women should be.

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