Sex sells: lessons in depicting real women in advertising


Despite efforts from ad regulators to stamp it out, ‘sneaky sexism’ still persists. In the same week we celebrate International Women’s Day, The Drum explores whether objectification in advertising has really improved, looking at better routes to take to avoid falling into these age-old pitfalls.

The male gaze in advertising has spawned a long history of egregious gender stereotypes, and while society has come a long way from those sexist ads of the ‘Mad Men’ era, do women really feel seen in today’s advertising?

Remember when Protein World’s ad ‘Are you beach body ready?’ appeared on a London’s Tube? Well, that was only six years ago. Since then, sexism is still very much part of advertising’s vernacular, from Audi China’s ad comparing women to cars, to Burger King’s decision to use sexism as clickbait or Pamela Anderson’s cleavage-filled ad for Ulta Tune. Even the UK government recently pulled a pandemic ad that depicted outdated gender stereotypes.

Meanwhile, there have also been breakthroughs, from Sport England’s This Girl Can that broke the mould of how women are spoken to in sports advertising, to Frida Mom’s Golden Globes spot that charted the highs and lows of lactation to show breastfeeding mums they’re not alone, to Essity’s groundbreaking work to normalise periods.

“Representation of women in ads is starting to shift in the right direction, but change is still patchy, erratic and far too slow,” insists Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer at Havas London. Despite evidence of important, incisive work, only 7% of women in the UK say the representation of women in advertising has become much more positive since 2015, according to recent research from YouGov. “90% of women say in surveys they don’t consider advertising relevant to them, which isn’t surprising when it’s made by a male-dominated industry,“ says Cindy Gallop, founder of the IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn.

Back in 2018, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought in a rule to ban harmful gender stereotypes, with Volkswagen and Philadelphia named as the first brands to fall foul. While the likes of France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Italy, Canada and Bulgaria have also brought in legislation to restrict sexism in ads, the US lags behind, as the National Advertising Division still doesn’t regulate it.

So, why does harmful gender stereotyping still exist? For Maguire, the problem persists in the space between the big, empowering manifesto-type ads like ’This Girl Can’ and those which are blatantly sexist. As the YouGov report cites, while gender stereotype ad bans can help, many portrayals may fall outside the scope of these rules – while tighter regulation has helped reduce examples of the more blatant objectification and misrepresentation of women, “it has yet to have much impact on the everyday sexism in advertising, other parts of the media and wider society that continues to prevail.”

It’s ‘sneaky sexism’ and it’s on the rise in advertising, according to researchers Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts in their new book, ‘Brandsplaining: Why Marketing Is (Still) Sexist’. “It’s in that everyday advertising which quietly reinforces outdated stereotypes – think of your mums slaving away in the kitchen while keeping an eye on the kids, your suited-up dads getting home from work as dinner is served,“ Maguire insists.

Acknowledging the drop in obvious stereotyping thanks to regulation, Uncommon’s co-founder Natalie Graeme says that some social media remain awash with influencers seemingly encouraged into playing into old-fashioned, harmful gendered tropes in order to garner attention for brands. “While they might take their influence from often hyper-sexualised, gendered role models in culture outside advertising, the regulators need greater impact to ensure the guidance is clear when it comes to commercializing their channels at the very least,” she argues. So what more can be done?

Gender-equal leadership

The general consensus is – if advertising is to abolish objectification, then advertising needs to hire more women in more senior roles. “Brand marketers must mandate that any agency pitching for, appointed to and working on their business, must have gender-equal leadership,” insists Gallop. At every point in the creative, production and distribution process, Gallop argues that agencies should be gender-equal.

Similarly, Mischief @ No Fixed Address’s executive creative director Bianca Guimaraes says that while it’s great such strong lines in the sand are being drawn by governing bodies, if agencies have a diverse workforce with strong female leadership, you wouldn’t need to rely on these regulations. “Because representation is baked into the creative from the very start. It will look and feel representative, and devoid of gender stereotyping, if you hire people who are representative of the people they’re talking to,” she insists. ”Stifled leadership not willing to step outside their comfort zone to find new and more inclusive ways to hire with equity at heart.”

”Agencies have to think differently to hire differently,” advises Maguire. ”Women are more attuned to the kind of every day, even accidental, sexism that men are likely to miss because they experience it every bloody day of their lives. They will call bullshit on your sexist ad before it even makes it out of the first creative review – if they are empowered to do so. As long as inequality exists in the boardroom, it will continue to seep into your comms.”

It’s a lesson Burger King learnt earlier this week when it faced a backlash for a tweet that read ’Women Belong in the Kitchen’. The tweet was part of an initiative to get more women in chef positions, but the delivery provoked outrage as they used the well-known sexist trope to grab attention, before explaining more in the thread (it also appeared in print.) Critics were quick to point out the bad stunt wouldn’t have happened if more women were in leadership roles at Burger King.

More regulation

While banning harmful gender stereotypes is a step in the right direction, Nathalie Gordon, creative director at Pablo, suggests that more regulation is needed if we are going to truly remove outdated sexist tropes.

“Look at how the work is being made, from inception to production,“ she insists. “I’d like the ASA to ban only womxn working on female-only products,” she says. “And I’d like the APA to mandate diversity on set, to ensure that at least one-third of bids are fulfilled by womxn and/or Black and Asian representation.”

“Until we make diversity and accurate representation part of our everyday practices, we can’t be surprised that the industry is still so regularly getting it wrong,“ she says.

With this in mind, she suggests its best to stop siloing progress to specific groups. “I automatically feel uncomfortable when I am specifically asked about female representation. Because we’re not accurately representing anyone if we’re honest with ourselves.”

She says, that in many ways, women are better represented than ever before – but that’s still comparative to ‘how was it was’. “If we look around and look at our agencies and then to our screens, is anyone truly ‘seen’?” she asks.

Let women reclaim their non-sexuality

Objects of the male gaze, depictions of women have long been the product of male fantasy. But as Gallop explains, “women are reclaiming their non-sexuality,” pointing to the breastfeeding work of Frida Mom. “Every woman responded to the ad, because it was reflecting women’s true, lived experience, showing breasts in a non-sexual and specific to women context,” she says. “As you would expect, everyone responsible for that ad at Mekanism was female.”

Advertising at the Golden Globes, breastfeeding mums finally felt ’seen’ – that someone out there understood their experience. Part of the reason breastfeeding rates are so low in parts of the world is that public discussion about how hard it really is has been discouraged; in Scotland, rates are much higher because the Scottish government has invested in support for breastfeeding, and has publicly committed to reducing the drop off in breastfeeding rates in the weeks after birth by 10% by 2025.

The same goes for period advertising, in all its gory and glory. For years, girls have been made to feel ashamed for their periods, partly due to advertising. In the past few years, period brands from Essity to Tampax, Modibodi to Callaly have been normalising periods and smashing taboos.

“They are taking something the male-dominated ad industry has historically refused to deal with while sexualizing and objectifying women and, like FridaMom, empathizing with and reflecting women’s lived experience, to powerful effect,“ Gallop explains.

More realistic portrayals of sex

Last summer, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion sent pulses racing with their provocative track WAP – an ode to women who like sex. Despite many conservative criticisms, it was celebrated as a sex-positive triumph.

“Sex, particularly sex from a woman’s perspective, is still one of advertising’s greatest taboo’s,“ explains Gordon.

“Durex is the only brand that springs to mind that is tackling female pleasure (or a lack of) head-on but when you think that three years ago we were watching Fleabag masturbate to an Obama speech, you realise how far behind we are with an ad that just says ‘moist’ over and over,“ she insists, adding: “no disrespect to the ad though. I remember thinking ‘brilliant! – an ad about WAPs’ but then being sad that the client probably wouldn’t let the creatives push it as far as it deserves to go.“

Gordon points to Tango’s ’Head Massager’ ad that touched on female masturbation but masked it with a father who claimed to not know what a vibrator was. “On the one hand, you have a progressive concept,“ she says. “But it was ruined with a totally outdated stereotype of a man who doesn’t understand female pleasure.“

“We need campaigns unashamedly by women,for women,“ insists Maguire. “Take our ’Ladies, Let’s Lube’ campaign for Durex, a condom brand. It’s all about refusing to put up with uncomfortable sex – and while there are plenty of knowing, exasperated, fourth-wall-breaking looks, there’s not a man in sight. It is no coincidence that was written by an all-female creative team.

“We need more authentic, representative, realistic depictions of women in all their glory.“

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Imogen Watson

Senior reporter The Drum

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