Women and advertising: J Walter Thompson's group planning head Rachel Pashley explains why ads should stop resorting to crude stereotypes

Will Railton
Follow Will
"Does the doctor always have to be a male? Could it be a woman?" says Pashley

"As a woman working in the marketing industry, I was continually confronted by creative briefs which referred to women as Busy Working Mum,” says Rachel Pashley, group planning head at J Walter Thompson (JWT) London.

Pashley is behind the agency’s Female Tribes insight study into women around the world, so that they may be treated by advertisers in as much complexity as men.

“When we describe men, we describe their ambition, their hopes, desires and how powerful they are. But we focused on women through a much narrower lens, focused on their parental responsibilities.”

An historic problem

Such limited representation of women has been a historic problem in advertising, says Pashley. The problem is that crude depictions have thus far been effective in selling products.

“Advertising was used to encourage women into the workplace during successive world wars. Then, in the late 40s and early 50s, laws were passed in some US states which meant that married women were banned from taking jobs which retired war veterans could occupy. So advertisers colluded with the government to create ads which would encourage women back into the home.

Read more: Women's networks alone will never bring gender diversity

“The 60s saw the birth of planning and advertising research, so advertising which portrayed the domestic ideal and women in the home was seen to sell products. A system was built which perpetuated stereotypes. They worked, so there was never any impetus to change them. I’ve heard clients and people in the industry say: ‘But it sells products, so why change?’ It may sell products, but how much more could you sell?”

It is not just that brands have a social responsibility to represent women properly, reducing them to crude stereotypes will cost them money.

Pashley points to J Walter Thompson’s women’s index study, which found that 73 per cent of women polled said they make the majority of financial decisions in their household. And yet, they feel very detached from the women depicted in ads.

Brands are starting to wake up.

Unilever committed to remove sexist stereotypes from its brands’ advertising. Its own survey found that just 2 per cent of ads depict intelligent women, 3 per cent show women in managerial, leadership or professional roles, and 40 per cent of women consumers don’t identify with the characters they see on screen or in print.

Female Tribes

JWT is trying to create a diverse and evolving vocabulary for advertisers and agencies to refer to women. “It’s about characterising female capital and the diversity of it, and recognising the value which women bring as leaders, pioneers, activists and wealth creators,” says Pashley.

Some of these tribes include “not-mums”, “social pioneers”, “teen activists” and “alpha females”. But Pashley is wary of creating just another set of lazy stereotypes.

“We call them ‘tribes’ because we work in the media industry and know the importance of creating cultural equity. When you hear the word ‘metrosexual’, you know immediately what is meant. This is about describing and clustering trends about female progress.

“The study is deliberately global, and is intended to be continuous, so it doesn’t become a blunt tool. We didn’t simply want to document the progress of rich western white women living in London. It’s about local insight. It’s easy to look at India and think ‘that’s a country where women feel disempowered.’ But eight out of the 10 major Indian banks are run by women. There are undoubtedly challenges there, but Indian women were the most optimistic about saying that it has never been a better time to be a woman.”

Read more: Why empowering women is key to change in the boardroom

JWT’s research shows that 86 per cent of women see feminity as a strength, not a weakness. “The worst kind of ‘fempowerment’ advertising positions women as disempowered, in order for a brand to enter stage left and save us,” says Pashley. “But half of the women questioned said they were the major breadwinner in their house. They already feel empowered.”

Proper representation

So how can advertisers represent women more faithfully from now on?

“Advertising should explore all the possibilities of being a woman. When you embrace that philosophy, it takes you to a very different place, creatively,” she says.

In recent years, some brands have been accused of cynicism for jumping on the idea of female empowerment, and promoting causes with catchy hashtags with the intention of boosting sales among women consumers.

“If it’s a cause, it has a shelf-life,” says Pashley. “In those cases, feminism becomes a trend for a brand, which will have an in-built expiration date. It should be something a company thinks about and embraces every single day.”

Read more: Maxus's global boss talks India, inequality and the long term

Agencies should aim to challenge their unconscious biases, she says. It could be as simple as a change in casting. “Does the doctor always have to be a male? Could it be a woman?”

Or could you use male actors in roles which have traditionally associated with women? “In France, Cillit Bang recently ran an ad where a car mechanic dances around an oily garage, cleaning as he goes. It’s a great torture test. It shows you don’t need to use the Stepford model to sell cleaning products.”

On the other side, brands should consider women’s needs properly when they think about product design, she says. “So much work to target women has been about feminising products in an inappropriate way – the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach. If you take trainers, this has literally been the case, despite research which has shown for 20 years that women’s feet are shaped and flex differently to men’s. That’s not a cause, but its impact can be transformative.”

Related articles