Marketers - young women need you

Jane Cunningham, Founder of Pretty Little Heads will be joining our YMS London panel debating the rise of female powerhouse role models and the effect this is having on young women today. Here she shares some brilliant insights into the impacts of female stereotyping in advertising on women.

Early last year we were asked by Unilever to outline the impacts of female stereotyping in advertising on women.  As proponents of more enlightened methods for targeting women, we were pleased to be asked.  Even we were surprised however to find female representation so outmoded. We were also interested that despite how well documented the negative the impacts of such dated representations are, that things were changing so slowly.

In the day-to-day representation of women in advertising, stereotypes do still dominate: women are only shown in managerial professional roles in advertising in 3% of cases; women are twice as likely as men to feature in commercials for domestic products; male voiceovers are preferred over female voiceovers because they’re deemed more authoritative; women are presented as sexual objects in one in two magazine ads.

Advertising isn’t the only media that displays this kind of imbalance: women are still awarded only a very limited kind of role across film and TV.  When a business executive appears on screen, it will be a man 86% of the time, and a woman in only 14% of cases; When the role is a doctor, it will be a man in 70% of cases, academics – 73% are men, and so on and so on.

It may cross your mind that young women understand how to decode such distorted representations. They’re so smart, so marketing literate that they can resist the stereotype. Sadly, the evidence suggests this is not the case.  

In particular, the impact on younger women around what they could or should look like is huge. One-in-three ads will distort the female model in order to make sure she conforms to a particular type of beauty ideal. In fact, most models used in advertising are 20% below a healthy body weight.  

Younger women have a complex relationship with this imagery they see.  They may rationally reject the idea of stereotyping.  They may know (as 42% of them do) that they are seeking to achieve an unattainable body.  However, the drip, drip, drip of imagery that normalizes skinny, that suggests ‘perfection’ is a sensible objective will eventually bypass this rational thinking.  

When it bypasses the sensible response you get all the problems we see in our hyper weight conscious youngsters. You get 85% of girls aged 17 saying they are unhappy with their bodies. Nearly 55% of their younger sisters (12 year olds!) feel unhappy about their bodies too. Half of 16-21 year olds want cosmetic surgery. 85% of girls tell us that advertising has a directly negative impact on their self-esteem.

There are politicians and lobbying groups who are attempting to modify the way young women are presented in advertising.  But they can only succeed if there’s a fifth column within the industry.

Young women need more marketers who see the value in presenting them in all their interesting and curious glory:  Brands like Lorde Inc., Aerie, Just Seventeen; brands that are willing to do more than just a one-off bit of voguish ‘fem-vertising’.  

Young women need marketers to just stop: stop normalizing the extremes; stop presenting perfection as a sensible aspiration. Introduce diversity into your representations of women and perhaps most transformative of all - give women something to do in advertising beyond just look good.

Make sure to hear Jane speak at YMS17 on "The rise of the female powerhouse and how to access this fierce demographic" panel, taking place on Day 1.


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