Bikini-clad babes are no way to sell things anymore. Advertising is finally catching up with the times and abandoning the sexist tropes it’s relied on for so long

Any casual Mad Men viewer is familiar with the deeply misogynistic roots of the advertising industry. Today, the image of the helpless housewife may have been supplanted by the perfect mum, but gender stereotypes remain. Unfortunately this kind of sexist advertising all too often slips under the radar as cultural background noise.

But this wasn’t the case at the Super Bowl in 2012. During the event, which sees many viewers tune in more for the advertising than for the game itself, a group called Miss Representation decided to show corporate America that feminists are everywhere, and that they vote with their dollars. The group encouraged viewers to post the hashtag #NotBuyingIt on social media platforms any time they wanted to talk back to a sexist ad. This created an embarrassment for brands such as Fiat, which aired an ad equating cars with sexy women, and GoDaddy, the domain registrar that had become known for the particularly flagrant use of busty, bikini-clad ‘babes’.

Encouraged by its success, in 2014 Miss Representation broadened its mission to become The Representation Project, and launched a #NotBuyingIt app. As the Super Bowl approached, digital feminists stood ready to take brands to task for the usual objectification and hypocrisy. But while a few sexist ads did air, commentators noted that they seemed less overt than in the past. GoDaddy turned the tables on its earlier campaigns, showing a pack of male bodybuilders converging on a salon owned by a professional woman armed with a spray-tan gun. Were brands finally getting the message?

Gender Positive

Super Bowl 2014 was far from a definitive break from sexism, and despite its coy attempt at objectifying men, the GoDaddy ad still came in for its share of feminist criticism. But brands did seem to be recognising that football doesn’t necessarily mean frat boys. Indeed, Nielsen demographic data shows that 46% of Super Bowl viewers are female. More women watch this macho sporting event than the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys combined. At $4m for a 30-second spot, how can brands continue to justify alienating half their potential customers?

“Advertisers are waking up to the fact that their stereotypes for who’s watching what aren’t true,” says Lisa Wade, a specialist in the sociology of gender at Occidental College and editor of the blog Sociological Images. “It used to be that there was almost literally nothing but nuclear families in advertisements. But now we’re seeing the very rare but striking example of a man doing housework, gay families, and women who might be single.”

The industry is also evolving as agencies themselves become more diverse. Alex Holder, executive creative director at Anomaly London, has adopted a more critical stance on gender as she has ascended the ranks. At the beginning of her career, the industry “felt quite genderless,” she explains. “But as I got more senior it felt like a lot less women were coming on that journey with me.” Explicitly pro-feminist advertising campaigns have multiplied partly “because there’s more of a female voice within agencies, and more people like me who’ve gone. ‘Hang on a minute, we can change this now”, she says.

Examples abound. In June 2014, feminine hygiene brand Always debuted a campaign called #LikeAGirl that explored how the phrase is used to denigrate young women, proposing instead that girls reclaim it as an affirmation. And as Under Armour attempted to expand its women’s apparel business, the brand enlisted athletic women such as ballerina Misty Copeland and model Gisele Bündchen in a campaign that showed them using sports to overcome degrading insults and putdowns.

Brands are also re-evaluating their depictions of men. In the 1990s, they began to make advertisements featuring bumbling, domestically incompetent men, which at the time passed as a clever, ironic retort to the misogynistic ads of the past. However, feminists soon noted that if men are seen as incapable of doing the laundry or feeding themselves properly, the job once again falls to women.

Some brands continue to trade on typical images, as in a recent Ginsters ad that suggested that only salty and fattening snacks could stave off hunger and save men from their inner buffoons. But others are creating more progressive messages. For example, Dove created a Father’s Day campaign for 2014 that emphasises men’s sensitive and caring side. In tandem, the company released the results of a study by Edelman Berland that found that 75% of men said they were responsible for their children’s emotional well-being, while only 13% said they felt the media portrayed them as fathers responsible for childcare.

2014 also saw the launch of the Lean In Collection, a collaboration between Getty Images and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In project. In this collection of stock photography, women are shown in professional settings from urban offices to farms and factories, while men are seen caring for children. Although gripping television ads generate more Tweets, this effort ultimately has much broader potential reach.

“The public doesn’t necessarily know that so many of the images that they are surrounded by in the world are in fact Getty Images,” explains Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images and a co-founder of the Lean In Collection. “We have to make a commitment to create more of these images that break down gender stereotypes and show women in a way that is more dynamic and gives them agency.”

Feminism 4.0

One way to view these shifts in advertising is as a response to a larger groundswell of feminist activism. These digital feminists are now increasingly holding brands accountable for any missteps. Just as a well-placed hashtag can cause an immediate spike in online conversations around a brand, consumers are now able to offer real-time bursts of criticism when brands resort to sexism to sell a product. In the journal Feminist Media Studies, University of Pennsylvania scholar Rosemary Clark writes that social media allows feminist politics to become more personal. Tools such as the #NotBuyingIt app, she argues, allow users to instantly connect their personal feelings of frustration to a larger global movement.

When brands offend these activists, the conversation can quickly send brands into damage-control mode. For example, Veet created an ad for wax strips featuring a sleeping man who wakes in horror when he feels his girlfriend’s leg stubble. She sits up, transformed in his mind into a portly gentleman wearing a lacy pink camisole. ‘Don’t risk dudeness’ the ad warns. “Every single person on the internet stepped on that – there was a big outcry and it got pulled,” says Holder. “The brand was embarrassed because there is that voice of the internet now which will point out when brands are perpetuating awful stereotypes or bad jokes.”

If anything, advertisers seem to be struggling to catch up to cultural attitudes that are shifting faster than many anticipated. Lisa Wade compares this to the rapid shift in attitudes toward gay marriage over the past decade. In the case of marriage equality, “opinion is leading and politicians are being dragged behind,” she says. “I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing with media – TV advertisers are being dragged behind changing attitudes.”

Some agencies have changed their tune however, not just due to pressure from digital feminists, but also following their own research. A study by Saatchi & Saatchi and the website Mumsnet found that only 19% of British mothers had ever identified with a woman in an ad, while 75% believed that the ‘perfect mum’ epitomised in classic television campaigns by brands such as Oxo was pure fiction.

Equally, research has shown that women respond to pro-feminist campaigns. A study by video analytics agency Ace Metrix tracked responses to the #LikeAGirl campaign, assigning it a score of 800 among women, versus 603 for an average ad.

Women’s media platform SheKnows, which coined the word ‘fem-vertising’ to describe the new wave of pro-female ads, commissioned a separate study of attitudes toward pro-feminist advertising. It found that 92% of women knew of at least one campaign that described women in a positive light and 71% felt that advertisers should be held responsible for using their ads to promote positive messages to women and girls. And it clarified the commercial appeal of such ads, finding that 52% of respondents had bought a product because they liked how its advertisements portrayed women.

Diversity Beyond Gender

Depictions of middle-class, traditional families are changing rapidly, but they are only part of a broader industry trend toward diversity. “Thanks to social media, people have a voice to express their expectations that they see faces and bodies like theirs in visual culture,” says Grossman. “That is reinforcing in a positive way the idea that the world is made up of many different kinds of people, who come in all different shapes and sizes and genders and sexualities and lifestyles and ethnicities.”

More brands are beginning to portray gay and lesbian families in their campaigns, aiming messages at the general market rather than at gay media alone. Chevrolet ran an ad featuring gay and lesbian parents during NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which became controversial following the introduction of homophobic laws in that country. The US digestive biscuit brand Honey Maid created a campaign called This is Wholesome, which aired on ABC during shows such as The View, featuring a gay couple raising their two sons.

The advertising firm JWT attempted one of the few studies of mainstream attitudes toward such campaigns in April 2014, finding that 80% of consumers agreed that showing gay people in advertisements ‘simply reflects the reality of our society today’. Additionally, 72% of respondents thought that brands portraying gay people in ads were being ‘brave’.

Mark Truss, global director of brand intelligence at JWT, commented that the findings suggest that “when diversity and acceptance are authentic and on-strategy for the brand, LGBT-inclusive ads will be met with a high degree of acceptance and benefit the advertiser.”

Gender-Fluid Branding

2014 was also a year of unprecedented cultural visibility for the transgender community, as we report in our Beyond Gender story on page 2. This has led advertisers to take tentative steps towards using transgender content. For its spring 2014 ad campaign, department store Barneys enlisted photographer Bruce Weber to shoot 17 male and female transgender models, ultimately releasing a series of short films. The transgender model Lea T went from being the face of Givenchy to landing a contract for haircare brand Redken. When the campaign appears in print and online in January 2015, she will become the first openly transgender individual to be the face of a global cosmetics brand. And while not transgender, Eurovision performer Conchita Wurst brought her over-the-top androgyny to a headphones campaign for French electronics company Parrot, which started in November 2014.

Will images of transgender people ever be commercially important to mainstream advertisers? Grossman thinks so. The next step for the Lean In/Getty Images collaboration is to offer brands more images of women of different body types, including transgender individuals. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the next frontier of inclusivity and expansion of civil rights,” Grossman says.

Progress Or Diversity?

Still, as some brands push the envelope for inclusion, misogynistic ads continue to appear. A recent Australian ad for Snickers begins with a Candid Camera–style prank in which construction workers shout pro-feminist comments at attractive women who pass by. Just when we think we’re seeing a progressive message, the ad leaves us with a final phrase: ‘You’re not yourself when you’re hungry’. Presumably, after eating a Snickers, the men can return to objectifying women, as is their implied ‘natural’ tendency.

Does more diversity necessarily mean progress overall? “What we’ve seen is a segmentation of the market,” says Wade. “If you want to consume programmes and advertising that are more progressive, you’ll find that. If you want to consume programming and advertising that’s deeply misogynistic, you can find that too.”

As the internet has multiplied the media options available to the average consumer, advertisers are now able to target more specific demographics. And thanks to big data, the advertising we see will only become more personalised as our digital footprints grow. But, misogyny in advertising could still thrive on millions of mobile screens, slipping under the radar as our attention is directed away from mass media events like the Super Bowl.

But by the same token, these ads will continue to draw the ire of determined digital feminists. Brands wishing to use retrograde attitudes on gender to their advantage will have to contend with a growing chorus of criticism. Perhaps even worse, they risk appearing behind the times. “Brands want to look future facing,” Holder says. “To look cool and with it, they have to start embracing and encouraging gender equality.”

Originally published in Protein Journal.