17 years later, and we’re still asking ‘what do women want?’

17 years later, and we’re still asking ‘what do women want?’

17 years later, and we’re still asking ‘what do women want?’

by Leith copywriter, Mairi Wilson.

My introduction into the world of advertising didn’t come through an agency, but through the film What Women Want. In case you haven’t caught its bi-monthly rerun on ITV2, it’s about an egomaniac ad man who magically starts hearing the innermost thoughts of women he encounters. Initially he shuns them, hiding himself away in his leather-bound office. But eventually he learns everything improves when he sets aside his ego, and starts to listen.

A bit of an early noughties throwback, maybe, but it’s still a pretty good metaphor for our current ad-land predicament.

It is commonly claimed that up to 80% of purchasing decisions are dictated by women. And we’re not shy about telling brands what we want.

The comment sections under the social adverts we create are often dominated by women, as are many online reviews. We’re reacting. Literally telling brands “I ❤️ this”, “I buy this brand”, and even, “good Lord, you have got this very, very wrong”.

Effectively, the magic spell which allowed Mel Gibson to read a gal’s mind is here: it’s called social media. It’s opened up a whole new platform for conversation. So why are we still, so often, getting it wrong?

Despite statistically having the stronger hold of the purse-strings, a recent survey affirms that something like 76% of women feel advertising doesn’t represent them. In a move to combat this, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have announced new legislation to prevent and inhibit stereotypical gender portrayal. Particularly calling attention to:

  • Family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up
  • The suggestion that a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls, or vice-versa
  • A man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks

No longer will we see roles such as “man attempting to fill the washing machine with dishes while woman despairingly trails after him.” And who wept? That’s right, nobody. While archaic, eye-roll inducing tropes like this are becoming a rarity, a few still slip through the nets. So hopefully, having a standard in place will render them extinct entirely.

But what of the more positive portrayals of women out there? At a female focus group discussing this year’s big winners at Cannes, Matt Williams (Partners Andrews Aldridge) found mixed reviews for some of the female orientated, bigger hitters. One comment rested with “it’s a good message, but the way they’ve glossed it up so blatantly to sell cars makes me a bit uncomfortable.” She was referring to a particular car advert. In it, a voiceover movingly condemns the patriarchal gender divide us girls all too often face. Fantastic. Bookending it with a sales push, however: hmmn, less good.

This is a tipping point in every kind of advertising: when is it OK to step in on issues, and when are we simply sticking our beaks in where they don’t belong? For me, the answer lies in empathy. Going beyond saying ‘we’re aware of your problem’, instead leading with ‘it’s our problem too, and it’s a b*gger ain’t it? That’s why we’re here to help”. And empathy is not something you can manufacture, it’s something that’s lived.

Relief from gender stereotypes in advertising, therefore, comes from within. From that ancient proverb of ‘what goes in, must come out’. I’m talking about the hiring process: we can only expect to represent, appeal to, and empathise with women if we hire more of them.

As a digital copywriter of less than a year, I’m fresh out of this process. And as a permanent, female junior copywriter for Signal, I’m relatively unscathed by it. But outwith my agency, I’m still in the minority. This year, Campaign observed the number of female creative directors has risen to 12%. Some progress there. But think of it another way: to get just a D in most exam papers, you need at least 40%.

It’s not just as an industry we’re failing, it’s a worldwide problem. At a recent Creative Mornings Edinburgh talk on equality, led by Kara Brown (CEO of The Young Woman’s Movement), I learned that only 7 CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies are women.

Kara reckons it comes down to ‘balance’. Balance is about equality; for creative companies, it means creating a team of diverse individuals who represent the world they are creating for. Which brings me back to my initial point about social media’s faster enabling of brand-consumer conversation. As brands, we are now in dialogue with our consumers. It stands to reason then, that our conversations can’t be balanced if our teams aren’t.

All too often, we can become convinced that the agency world is the real one. But take a step outside, and it’s a lot different out there – I mean, some people don’t even have timesheets! So as an industry, we have to continue to make strides to reflect the world outside our agencies within them. That comes down to hiring a balanced, diverse, and equal team. Only then, can we truly empathise with our consumers.

(For the record, it’s much easier than Plan B…)

Mairi Wilson
Mairi Wilson

Mairi is the copywriter half of one of our Creative teams here at Leith. She helps turn a brand’s message into a conversation.