March 06, 2019

Is It The Ad Age of Diversity?

Historically, women and advertising have not been the greatest of allies. Sexism. Discrimination. Misogyny. A global mass misrepresentation of females. From those crude depictions of 1950s domestication to hypersexualised images to sell luxury brands, the image of the female has been falsely constructed and taken for a joyride in advertising.

Diversity: a word that has been on the lips of the advertising world for several years. Intersectional inclusivity is the epitome of this. Grammatical inclusion has seen the word ‘women’ change to ‘womxn’, eliminating the patriarchal suffix imposed by some Englishmen who invented the eponymous language.

Collectively, we’ve largely dismissed the medieval concept surrounding the roles and responsibilities of women in society. However, there are some remnants of this attitude still hovering around our contemporary world. Only recently did Saudi Arabia lift its ban on women being able to independently drive cars without a male companion – a cultural code imposed to control women.

Considering advertising in its purest form, it is persuasion. And when done correctly campaigns nourish those feelings of temptation, seducing you to buy a brand’s product or service. If ads have the ability to physically make you enter a store and purchase an object, they can persuade your way of thinking and perceiving yourself and the environment around you.

Bearing this in mind, advertisements have more than one target. The primary, being the consumer or end-user of the product, object or service. The secondary, yet arguably equally important, is the investor – those paying for the campaign to run, who by default were raised in the ‘Mad Men’ advertising era. Psychologically, these problematic campaigns are easier to digest with their subliminal sexist agendas, rather than a campaign overtly challenging socially accepted ideas of women.

This feeds into the issue of hypersexualising women and depicting them as an object or prop intended to help sell a product, like in this TV commercial. It doesn’t violate any ethical codes of conduct; however, it is feeding a toxic message that women are designed as tools to sell and that is their purpose, based on appearance and face-value qualities.

So why are people still getting so offended when companies release ads that promote equality, inclusivity, diversity and respect?

For example, Gillette’s latest campaign against toxic masculinity. The message behind the commercial deconstructs the tall wall enclosing male vulnerability and sensitivity, depicting how destructive a lack of these qualities are amongst men. Despite receiving accolades and praise, criticism erupted across the internet. The issue is not with being offended, but rather with being called out. Biologically, humans are equipped with defence mechanisms. The problem lies within the inability to be accountable, take responsibility and admit one’s own wrongdoings. It really does get to you.

Someone who gets it is Global Chief Creative Officer of FCB, Susan Credle, has had the full ‘Mad Men’ experience. Beginning as a ‘bathroom-break girl’ for the receptionists, she has gradually been praised and recognised for her contribution to the advertising world. But that doesn’t mean it has been an easy climb. To this day, executives often begin talking business with her husband, an architect, at professional events and completely disregard her profession, position and presence.

Predictably, the 3% Movement have uncovered that 29% of Creative Directors across the advertising world are women. This has increased drastically over the last 30 years; however, the figure still hangs low. Without female leadership and creative influence, it becomes increasingly difficult to question the messaging and ideas that support certain proposed advertising campaigns when they’re in their infancy. I don’t blame the men entirely – how can they recognise these messages when it’s all they have been fed in the past? Hence the need for these women to point such things out.

Society is now experiencing the third wave of feminism, whether you like it or not, spurred on by the digital age. Social media platforms have been key in forming societal conversations – ones that span over many countries at a continuous rate. If our physical voices aren’t enough, our online voices can make waves just as easily. The proliferation of these opinions is integral to engage new people; encouraging them to consciously reflect on the misrepresentation of women and how to rectify this in our society.

Some large-scale fashion corporations have the right idea. Following criticism from their largest consumer audience, who are women, surprise surprise, brands like H&M and Aerie by American Eagle are taking steps to form real representations of women, not just cis-gendered, Caucasian, size 6 models. Portraying women of colour, women of various sizes and other female-identifying women across advertising gives rise to a more accurate representation of a 21st century woman. Being unafraid to boldly share this message is a fearless move by any creative agency. It takes guts and bravery, but isn’t that at the very core of great advertising?

As women, we have been excluded. We have been controlled. We have been squeezed into moulds of unrealistic expectations and totally undermined by outdated conventions.

But growth gives way to new life. 

2019 is for women. We’ve already cultivated a collective of empowered and capable females - just wait till we’re in full bloom.

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