An exhibition is launches this week in London to celebrate brands which have empowered women with their advertising. Kantar’s ‘What Women Want – An exploration of 100 years of marketing to women’ showcases the ads that have built positive female role models over the last century.
The exhibition features adverts, many preserved in The History of Advertising Trust archives, including one from Vimto in 1920 with a rare portrayal of a woman playing sport, a 1942 war recruitment poster giving women a sense of purpose and power with their new roles, a 1980 Trustee Savings Banks image of a working woman with financial control and the more recent Dove campaign, started by Unilever in 2004 and showing ‘Real beauty’.
It’s about giving women a voice, power and confidence.
Today, in our in our #metoo world, advertisers have got to get it right. A brand doesn’t want to be accused of objectifying women or placing them into sexist, clichéd roles. Just think of the furore over the ‘Are you beach body ready?’ billboards in 2015.
The Advertising Standards Agency is responsible for deciding if an ad is the right side of the line – in recent years approaches including a ‘mermaid’ with her breasts bared selling propeller cleaner, a woman in her underwear advertising fast food and a crotch shot have led to ads being banned.
But there is a worrying sub-trend. Marketing these days isn’t of course limited to billboards and tv adverts, but is carried out through paid partnerships with influential bloggers and Instagrammers. Most of the time, these influencers produce their own content to promote brands or products. Many of them have massive reach and ability to influence their followers, which is, of course, why companies are keen to work with them.
The ASA has just published a guide advising influencers of the rules they need to follow for sponsored content, such as marking it clearly #ad in an obvious, upfront way. They also state that adverts are covered by the Code of Conduct – but in practice it is hard to police the vast amount of internet content.
Whilst brands may carefully vet content going out in their name, to ensure it is in keeping with the Code of Conduct, it is the wider portrayal of individuals on sites such as Instagram that is concerning. It is not just the ad itself which matters, but the wider ‘brand building’ on an individual’s account. That bikini beach yoga shot is not an ad, but it sells as lifestyle that makes the next, carefully labelled #ad post of a yoga mat more sellable.
All too often, influencers are creating a female perpetuated image of self that simply wouldn’t be tolerated by the ASA. Take these examples of ASA rulings and guidance as to what is not acceptable, all of which are regularly ignored on Instagram:
Posing in an exaggerated way that makes the person look unrealistic or unhealthily thin.
This is a widespread practice, and is also often coupled with digital enhancement, filters and contouring with make-up to create the illusion of a flawless, thin body, many of them advertising diet products. There is evidence of body positive accounts – showing bodies that don’t fit the stereotypical ideal, whether with disabilities or higher BMIs, but they remain few and far between, and crucially, are often not the ones with sponsored content.
Objectification or fragmentation of women
Surprisingly common, even amongst those which might be considered feminist, this includes showing just body parts, or excluding the face from a shot. This may be in some cases because of the difficulty of taking your own photo – but it has the same impact: women are portrayed as just bodies, or clothes horses.
Over sexualised images and gratuitous nudity or semi-nudity.
Full nudity isn’t allowed on Instagram, but there is plenty of semi-nudity. A search for #bodygoals brings up literally millions of semi-naked images, mostly of women in lingerie or revealing swimwear in provocative poses.
It is of course a woman’s choice as to how she portrays herself – a feminist can wear what she likes and pose however she wants. However, I can’t help but question if the way many women are choosing to present themselves is not a true choice, but rather a societal pressure to appear a certain way and to be more ‘perfect’ to attract followers and sponsored work.
We’re right to celebrate the achievements of mainstream advertising in challenging stereotypes and cleaning up the portrayal of women, yet women themselves are creating brands in ways that mainstream advertising wouldn’t, and couldn’t, do today.
Responsible brands need to be aware not only of the adverts going out in their name, but the way women are representing themselves across their whole feed. We’ve still got a long way to go.
Here’s a quick guide to keeping your Instagram feed empowering….
- show your face – not just your body.
- if you wouldn’t stand/pose/dress like it at the supermarket, don’t do it on your photo.
- don’t pick a photo because it is the slimmest one – focus on your smile or your eyes instead.
- don’t be afraid to show imperfection.
- don’t use filters or digitally edit yourself.
- challenge cliches: don’t just show yourself in very stereotyped roles.
What Women Want? Exhibition – An exploration of 100 years of marketing to women. Open from 21 – 29 November 2018, free entry. Book your ticket on https://www.whatwomenwant.uk.com
I wrote this on behalf of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT). With thanks to HAT for the images from their archives which also feature in the exhibition.