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Targeting the Market: Improving Advertising to Women

Advertising to women is still progressing from one-dimensional stereotypes to full-bodied realism

By Rebecca Harris | Photo By Phil Cheung, CNW Group

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In the 1940s and ’50s, there was only one female target market for consumer product companies: suburban housewives. And, it seems, only one type of advertisement targeting the market: sexist. “So the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks!” declared a print ad for Kellogg’s Pep cereal that showed a smiling, high-heeled woman holding a feather duster. “The Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for!” according to a Kenwood Chef ad. And a weeping housewife at the stove was the star of a Schlitz ad that featured the headline, “Don’t worry, darling, you didn’t burn the beer!”

Fast-forward to the mid-’90s, when Nike began ramping up its focus on women as athletes. The 1995 TV commercial “If You Let Me Play,” which featured girls talking about how playing sports will impact their lives, is still relevant and empowering today, says Denise Rossetto, executive director at Toronto ad agency DDB Canada. “[Nike] knows how to do empowering, inspirational marketing towards men and they really get it right for women.”

In 2004, Unilever’s Dove brand broke new ground with its Campaign for Real Beauty, which expanded the traditional definition of “beauty” and encouraged women to be comfortable in their own skin. “[The campaign] spoke to women about something they didn’t think they were allowed to talk about, and it sparked a debate about what real beauty was,” says Sharon MacLeod, VP of marketing at Unilever Canada. “We were taking a stand that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities and no one had told them that before.”

Emily Spensieri, president at Female Engineered Marketing (FEM), says Dove markets to women incredibly well. “I don’t know anybody that’s doing it better.”

While the ad industry has certainly come a long way from Golden Age-style sexism and stereotypes, the Nikes and Doves of the world seem to be the exception rather than the rule. A November 2012 study by i-on-Women, a division of Chicago-based Insights in Marketing, found that 91% of women surveyed do not feel companies are marketing effectively to them.


“In some cases we have progressed, but obviously not far enough when you hear a number like that,” says Rossetto. “And I think when there has been any form of change, it’s been a more honest portrayal of women versus the clichés that you often see.” For example, Procter & Gamble’s 2012 mom-centred “Best Job” TV commercial shows that you don’t look amazing waking up your kids at 5 a.m. to go play a sport. “You’re not wearing a blouse with perfect hair,” says Rossetto. “That honest portrayal is quite a progression from where we used to be, but obviously with that statistic, it’s still not enough.”

Marketers that do get it right have tapped into the deep insights and information now available about female audiences. “There’s been a rise in the amount of information about how women process information and how they make decisions,” says Jill Nykoliation, president of Toronto ad agency Juniper Park. “We’ve done a lot of work on trying to understand how women make decisions and what that means to a marketer or even R&D if you’re designing products. We say to our clients, ‘It’s like going from a butter knife to a steak knife. If you could get sharper, why wouldn’t you?’”JWT Women in Advertising037

By the same token, it’s important that marketers not think of “women” as a single target audience. “There are a million versions of a female target group, depending on your age, your interests, what you like and what you talk about,” says Karen Howe, senior vice-president and creative director at Toronto-based One Advertising.

Even within certain demographics, such as “moms,” there are many subsets to consider. “Moms these days could be 25 or 45, a first-time mom [or not],” says Rossetto. “To just have blanket assumptions steers you into generic, superficial advertising.” Despite today’s wealth of insights and data, some companies still fall back on one-dimensional depictions of women. Howe says marketing to women is improving, “But some marketers just do it poorly.” For example, “I’m surprised when I see advertising of brands like Herbal Essences, with the woman washing her hair and having an orgasm in the bathroom of an airplane and [the company] thinks that is a good way to sell to women,” says Howe.

Nykoliation says Playtex made a massive error with its campaign for Fresh + Sexy hygiene wipes. Launched in February, the campaign is built around tongue-in-cheek sexual euphemisms that seem more aimed at men’s sense of humour than women.

“I actually thought it was a joke when I saw it,” says Nykoliation. “I thought, ‘this can’t be real.’ And it is. It’s a doozy.”

With the proliferation of social media, marketing misfires are subject to widespread ridicule and instant backlashes— a huge change in the marketing landscape from just five years ago. “There are more ways to make a misstep with the many ways of communicating,” says Howe. “And with social media taking on a life of its own, if you misstep, you get a blow back from your audience. It’s immediate, hard and fast. And it’s very public.”

That’s exactly what happened last year when Bic launched its For Her line of pink and purple pens, promoted as being “designed to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand.” The company was ridiculed on social networking sites and in the media.

The upside to social media is, if you get it right, the rewards are enormous, says Howe, pointing to Dove’s “Evolution,” a 75-second online video showing the use of airbrushing on a model for a beauty ad. Launched in 2006, “Evolution” quickly went viral and went on to win numerous advertising awards. “That is a great example of something taking on a life of its own in a really meaningful way and finding its way around the world. So as much as there’s a downside, there’s an upside.”

MacLeod agrees that social media has had a very positive impact on Dove’s mission. “Essentially it created a venue for people to have a conversation and share what they thought. [With Evolution], it was just fantastic content that they wanted to share.” The key to marketing to women effectively, MacLeod adds, is by “understanding them and connecting with them as real people about things they care about.”

While Dove is triumphantly tackling an important social issue, some female focused brands are finding success with humour, an approach that’s not often used. “Most marketers are completely missing humour when it comes to women,” says DDB’s Rossetto. “I think of the movie Bridesmaids and we were all so relieved to see a funny movie with women, but I don’t see it in marketing right now. It’s still so very serious.”

One brand that’s using a more lighthearted approach is Luv’s. An August 2012 ad for Luv’s diapers showed a first-time mom struggling to cover up and breastfeed in the corner of a restaurant. The ad then shows the mom back at the restaurant with her second baby and now-older child. This time, she’s sitting at a table openly breastfeeding, while the waiter looks on with surprise. “I thought ‘that’s real, that’s funny and that’s authentic,’ and that’s what women are looking for,” says Rossetto.

More shining examples of on-point humour have recently come from “feminine hygiene” brands, which for years relied on euphemisms, blue-liquid demonstrations and women frolicking on the beach in all-white outfits. An ad for U by Kotex that poked fun of tampon commercials was a viral hit, as was U.K.-based Bodyform’s online spoof in which the company’s “CEO” apologized for using misleading images in its advertising. At the end of the spot, which now has 3.8 million views on YouTube, the CEO has a sip of blue liquid from a glass.


“There are companies that are doing some cutting-edge [marketing], talking to women about their own stuff in their own way, with wit and intelligence, and they’re being rewarded for it,” says Howe.

The consensus among ad executives is that the hits and misses aren’t confined to certain industries. Within every sector, “there are folks doing it right and doing wrong,” says FEM’s Spensieri. That said, the financial industry, which historically has done a poor job of marketing to women, “is getting better, but I still think there’s a missed opportunity there,” says Spensieri. “In the research we’ve conducted, women are at a loss for how to invest. However, they do have the money. So they’re overwhelmed and intimidated by it, but they’re not being spoken to.”

While advertising remains a male-dominated field, the death of female creative isn’t the reason for marketers missing the boat so often. “I’ve never liked to believe that you have to be a woman to talk to a woman, or you have to be a man to talk to a man,” says Howe. “I feel I could do just as great a beer ad as the next guy, even though the target is often male. But I think now more than ever, we have to work harder to find a meaningful insight. Any great advertising is rooted in a truth and relevance. You’ve got to find a reason to worm your way into someone’s life and that’s the hard homework.”

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