Even in the age of “fempowerment” and “femvertising,” narratives of women in the marketing and advertising world are still sexist — and here’s why. (Plus a few brands who are doing it right.)

We are living in an era of fourth-wave feminism, the Me Too movement, and heightened social and political awareness. Yet, despite progress in many parts of society, sexism in marketing not only still exists — it’s rampant.

Men are almost twice as likely to be featured prominently in advertising than women. Yet, women are 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen. Older women almost disappear from ads altogether — with only one in 10 aged 50 and above getting a starring role. And, it’s not just older women who are overlooked. The representation of BIPOC communities, particularly among women, is even more limited. For perspective, a 2019 study found that 69% of Black characters in ads are male. As for ads featuring non-binary and transgender identities, they’re practically non-existent.

And, even when women are featured, they’re misrepresented. More often than not, advertisers are either failing to represent women authentically, or at all. You don’t need to look far to find ads that cast women as secondary, reinforce gender stereotypes, and fail to reflect the diversity of the female community. Unsurprisingly, these ads are missing the mark with their female consumers — an ironic failure on the industry’s part given that women hold crucial purchasing power, driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing decisions.

In fact, 66% of women still don’t connect with what they see in marketing, and 60% still say that they think marketing has an outdated view of women, according to Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts — the co-authors of Brandsplaining: Why Marketing Is Still Sexist And How To Fix It, and co-founders of PLHresearch, a leading research agency in the U.K. that helps marketers better understand female audiences.

In their book, Cunningham and Roberts expose how the wants and needs of women are largely ignored and misrepresented by brands. Ads — even so-called “femvertisements,” which are meant to empower women — often still sell sexist ideas, but in “sneakier, more stealthy ways.”

“Brands are still explaining to women how and who they should be,” Jane explains. “Even when brands are participating in the so-called ‘fempowerment’ movement, more often than not, they’re still casting a critical eye over women.” she continues.

On the surface, many brands appear to be presenting more positive and progressive messaging, but they’re just telling women to fix themselves. There are countless examples of brands telling women to “stop saying sorry,” to “be brave,” “ageless,” and so on. The onus to empower women is often placed squarely on the shoulders of the very people the ads are meant to empower.

 

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts. Image courtesy of Penguin Media

But, when you consider that 71% of creative directors — the role with the most creative control — are male, it is perhaps not surprising why many ads don’t connect with female and non-binary consumers.

The reality is, countless brands engage in communication campaigns that performatively signal their moral goodness as it helps bolster and preserve their power. And, that power continues to be disproportionately reserved for powerful white, wealthy, highly educated men, who are, in many cases, co-opting the messaging of disadvantaged groups — including women.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says we’re living in an era of what he calls “woke capitalism,” referring to brands that resort to empty messaging as a substitute for genuine reform. Through performative activism, such brands are essentially capitalizing on the stir and popularity of social movements — like feminism — to achieve their ends.

That said, there are many brands out there that authentically speak to women — or brands that are at least trying to. For the latter, it is perhaps prudent to ask: what are the best practices for avoiding and detecting sexist marketing bias? And, most importantly: what do women want in advertising?

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by PLH (@plhresearch)

There is an underlying assumption in sexist brand narratives, which suggests women are content being dependent and what they desire most is male validation. However, a study conducted by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts reveals the aspirations of women to be the complete opposite. Based on a 14,000 sample size of women across 14 countries, they found the primary aspirations are to be financially independent, make their own decisions in life, and be comfortable in their own skin.

So, now that we have a better idea about what women want in advertising let’s discuss some of the ways brands can — and must — do better.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Frida Mom (@fridamom)

For starters, brands can avoid marketing bias by assuming their rightful place in women’s lives — “as a servant not a master to the customer,” as Jane and Philippa put it. Women, for too long, have been told who and how to be. Brands can start by listening to what women want and need.

For inspiration, brands can also look to woman-made brands that present an alternative female lens perspective. Brands such as Frida Mom, Third Love, Bumble, and Thirteen Lune, represent real women and make them feel seen — not how men want them to be.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Bumble (@bumble)

When brands take an intersectional approach to understanding women and their lives, they’re more likely to connect with women in a more meaningful way. Groundbreaking new research by Ipsos shows that brands only stand to benefit from approaching intersectionality through a culturally nuanced lens — with regard to race, age, sexual orientation, faith, cultural background, socioeconomic background, and more.

The study found that intersectional advertising grows and deepens consumers’ ties with a brand. The inclusion of progressional and intersectional peoples drives consumers’ feelings of “closeness” with the brand.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by PLH (@plhresearch)


Lastly, it’s time for brands to put their money where their (marketing) mouth is by taking a stand with cause-based marketing on issues that are important to women. According to the Holmes Report, women in the U.S. are significantly more likely than men to show their support for a cause by purchasing products and services from companies that align with their values

And, women are more likely to learn about such causes through the brand itself. In fact, according to 2018 Nielsen Scarborough data, when women see that their values are reflected by a brand, 85% will remain loyal.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by ThirdLove (@thirdlove)


It’s a sentiment shared by Laura Bates, the founder of Everyday Sexism Project. “There’s a big difference between simply pushing out a feminist ad campaign in the hope that it will go viral and actually designing a product with the principle of equality at its heart, say, or embodying that message by acting internally on issues from equal pay to parental leave.”

Feminism isn’t a commodity — it’s about time brands stop treating it like one.