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Challenging the status quo with women, for women

Virgile Brodziak

Managing Director

J. Walter Thompson Paris


Challenging the status quo with women, for women

Where are all the women? Over the years, many creative directors, sociologists and gender specialists have successively addressed one of the most sensitive and challenging questions of the past century in advertising. That’s the good news. The bad news? We still have a long way to go.

We thought we were past it. Turns out, we aren’t, and it might actually be worse than a decade ago, considering the improvements we have supposedly made when it comes to gender equality in advertising. How could women still be so conspicuously absent from the sector when, in fact, they’re the biggest spenders in Western societies? While there are certainly remnants of ancestral biases in the general perception of women, which are expressed quite strongly in their representation on-screen, there seems to be more to this issue than that.

In recent research done with Google, the University of South Carolina and led by the Geena Davis institute, J. Walter Thompson has revealed some telling numbers. Shedding light on what seems to be a structural problem, the study shows that over the space of 10 years, (between 2006 and 2016), women’s representation in ads has increased from 33.9 percent to 36.9 percent. Yes, that’s only three percentage points more. Madeline Di Nonno, the Geena Davis Institute’s CEO, described this as “surprising and essential”. “These findings are essential because they allow us to understand the magnitude of a subconscious problem”, she explained.

Three powerful numbers in particular should be kept in mind when we, both CMOs and advertisers, are designing for the future of advertising.

  1. 25 percent of ads feature only a man, versus 5 percent with a woman only.
  2. In 2016, 41.7 percent of women featured in advertising were given less than 20 percent of the speaking time over the course of an entire dialogue.
  3. In 2015, out of 100 box office movies, the ones featuring a woman as the main character have generated 16 percent more profit than those featuring a male star, as brilliantly illustrated by episode seven of the Star Wars saga.

The way we feel about the advertising of 50 years ago – reductive, sexist and limiting – can’t be the same in 10 years. Now that we have developed adequate technologies to identify and understand all the intricacies of this issue, the status quo needs to change.

The problem doesn’t come with a magic bullet, but it does come with cues that brands and agencies can use right now.

“It’s because girls are a minority in creative departments that we are more used to seeing faces and hearing stories that are not like our own,” argues Becky McOwen Banks, a creative director, in her TEDx talk, “Where are all the women in advertising?”. After all, who, if not women themselves know better how to catch women’s attention?

JWT and the Geena Davis report also addresses the shortfall of women behind the scenes in advertising, and shows how some have used this gap to generate public interest. “Girlgaze”, launched by the photographer and media entrepreneur Amanda de Cadenet, is one such venture. The goal of the platform is to support and empower Generation Z’s young women to take the lead by sharing advice, mentorship and access to job opportunities. As of April 2018, Girlgaze had 4 million submissions and was turned into a book.

Things can change, and it is part of our corporate responsibility to be leaders of this change:

  • Every industry should re-think the way it behaves

Even in the very traditional and over-sexualized industry of lingerie, Simone Pérèle and J. Walter Thompson Paris challenged the status quo with the first lingerie campaign promoting women’s empowerment instead of seduction.

  • Encourage people to look at the world with fresh eyes

JWT Amsterdam has successfully launched one of Opel’s most acclaimed hiring campaigns: Jade. Half of all cars are acquired by women, but only 4 percent of car salespeople working at Opel are women. Drawing on that unsettling number, the car brand has started a national conversation about people’s perceptions of car-related professions and, as a result, witnessed a growing number of female candidates.

  • Celebrate women from seven to 77 years old, and beyond

At JWT Paris, we’re doing our best to advertise for all women’s needs. With Hydralin, we worked on addressing the issue of menopause and tackling stereotypes. When we launched “Good Sex Is Not About Age”, featuring women aged 55-plus talking about their sexuality, the public reaction was instantaneous: they adored it.  

As life expectancy increases, so too does the need to talk to women in a language that resonates with them, every step of the way. If one of the takeaways of the Geena Davis Institute’s report suggests that the deficit in representatively comes from a shortcoming in the workforce, the ball is now in the industry’s court. Featuring women in commercials won’t be enough to foster long-lasting public respect for our industry. However, it will be a great start towards changing the game.

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