Photo: Vagenda Magazine
I started down my path as a marketer in the late 90s as a media major. One of the first things I observed about the industry I was preparing to join was how off-base, out-of-touch and sometimes downright insulting too many of its messages targeting women were. Sadly, not much has changed since then (which still amazes me given the significant consumer purchasing power women have had for decades). But I do think it’s finally about to.
As a women’s issues advocate and an account planner at an agency that gets it, I’ve felt the momentum building toward a fourth wave women’s movement — and, concurrently, a tipping point-level demand for more media accountability — for a while now. Then a few weeks ago, this widely-held presumption was recognized as an official consumer trend by Kate Muhl of Iconoculture (my favorite research resource). From Kate’s “The F-Word Returns” trend brief:
Thanks to post-recession economic realities, a 2012 campaign season that brought women’s issues to the fore, and public figures like Sheryl Sandberg, feminism is back — but with a witty, social-media-fueled twist. Both women and men are participating in the conversation, and taking misguided brands to task.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
One of the most entertaining examples of “taking misguided brands to task” is the hilarious parody commercial Ellen DeGeneres created for Bic’s “For Her” pen series after the brand attempted to recruit her as its spokesperson last fall. But, as Kate points out, “Women (and men) are no longer sitting in a passive position waiting for the entertainment industry to channel their irritation into lampoons and parodies.” They’re taking matters into their own hands and, in doing so, are forcing worldwide change:
- Just weeks ago, Reebok dropped their sponsorship agreement with rapper Rick Ross because of social media-fueled pressure surrounding song lyrics referencing date rape.
- Miss Representation, the advocacy organization behind the fantastic documentary by the same name, introduced the hashtag #NotBuyingIt during this year’s Super Bowl to call out brands that rely on sexual objectification to sell their products and are currently raising money for a #NotBuyingIt app that will let users photograph, map and share sexist ads.
- Ford India’s leaked ad mock-ups depicting bound women in the trunk of a car sparked online outrage and resulted in the termination of several of their agency’s employees. (Again, keep in mind that these ads never even ran.)
Possibly the best example how tired consumers have become of the media’s hyper-sexualized, perfection-obsessed depictions of women came not from yet another outrageously disparaging ad, but from an unusually relatable one — Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video. Unless you’ve been off-grid for the last week, you’ve probably seen it and/or had discussions about why it was such a big deal. Although some have made relevant arguments about the limitations of Dove’s message, it’s clearly proven that authenticity is an approach that women will not only respond to, but champion.
Women have become so used to media that creates and preys on insecurities (there’s a lifetime of that BS inconveniently stored in our brains), which is exactly why the Dove campaign feels so revolutionary. And the message it sends to the industry couldn’t be any clearer: It’s time for a more progressive and respectful way to communicate with women.
“Girls get the message, from very early on, that what’s most important is how they look, that their value, their worth, depends on that,” says Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D, an author and filmmaker internationally recognized for her work on the image of women in advertising. “Boys get the message that this is what’s important about girls. We get it from advertising, we get it from films, we get it from television shows, video games — everywhere we look. So no matter what else a woman does, no matter what else her achievements, her value still depends on how she looks.”
The price our society pays for this environment is high: girls are increasingly learning to self-objectify, women are twice as likely to suffer from major depression than men, 65% of females exhibit eating disorder behavior, and 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
This is not just an industry issue (and certainly, within our industry, there are many exceptions) or potentially a bottom-line issue, it’s a social and moral issue propagated by other cultural influencers as well. Yet when media shapes culture, like it does in this always-connected digital age, not taking responsibility for our role in it is…well, irresponsible.