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        Have brands got to grips with portraying women in ads? Don’t ask men!

        It’s difficult to believe that only five years ago, the way women were generally portrayed in advertising was broadly the same as in the 1970s.

        Back then, the content would usually have been prepared for and by men. Women at both ends of the advertising chain were in short supply; they were either creatives working in the ad industry or decision-makers receiving the ads. The stereotypes you were likely to see during these years had a narrow range from domestic goddess to sex object; from selfless home-maker to unattainable princess, identified by the Museum of Brands.

        When surveyed, men were more likely to agree that women are now represented positively in advertising compared to five years ago, than women themselves. Overall, the Marketing Week and YouGov survey of 2,000 UK adults found that 50% thought the representation of women had improved since 2015.

        Throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s, women established themselves in the workplace, including in the advertising industry, but changing their representation in the industry’s output has taken far longer. Ensuring that you have a balanced team with progressive approaches to reflecting real demographics in your ad content is a great place to start.

        Ground zero of the current wave of long-overdue change is widely considered to be Protein World’s 2015 ad asking women whether they were ‘beach body ready.” Since then, similarly, insidious phrases like ‘girl boss’ have been banished as gender stereotypes have crumbled.

        Objectification of women in advertising is still a major problem. The survey found that 38% agreed there was less objectification of women, while 12% believed things had deteriorated since 2015. The majority felt it was about the same now as five years ago. Again, interestingly men are much more likely to think that women are less objectified now than women are.

        One of the culprits is photo retouching software. Complaints of airbrushing in adverts and magazines, in particular, have been consistent for decades now. As the tools to do this improved, so did access to the technology. Within minutes it’s possible not only to make a model’s body flawless but also anatomically impossible.

        Now, brands are being challenged to feature real women in their advertising. Showcasing models with wrinkles, non-hourglass bodies, acne, scars and imperfect teeth enables consumers to see how products really work. Living through lockdown and without beauty services has made previous ideals not only unattainable but completely out of touch with reality.

        The survey did find one indisputably positive outcome of the last five years of change. 64% of those surveyed think that women of colour are represented more in advertising than five years ago. Only 2% felt that there has been a decline.

        However, many brands need to do far more to show ethnic minority women in a realistic light, with some still producing content revealing unconscious bias. An industry-wide 2020 Marketing Week survey found that black women are under-represented on marketing teams, at just 2%. Over 88% of respondents identified as white, and only small numbers as Asian (5%) or mixed race (4%).

        Ensuring your teams are diverse is not a box-ticking exercise, it’s critical to your brand’s relevance and success.

        This new direction is a challenge, but an important one. Don’t just keep up, be current and at the forefront of whatever comes next. We can find the people that will ensure you are leading innovation, not following it. Contact our industry-renowned team at Clifford Associates to find the right people for your senior digital team.

        Have brands got to grips with portraying women in ads? Don’t ask men!