The depiction of women in advertising has long been a contentious issue, but how do real UK women actually feel about it? Our latest research reveals the truth.
How women are depicted by brands in their advertising campaigns is a long-running and contentious issue, with many commentators still exasperated that gender stereotypes continue to be propagated and diversity is less advanced than it should be. As you can see from the header image above, a quick google search for ‘women in advertising’ or ‘women in adverts’ shows why.
But how do female consumers – real women from across the UK – feel about this issue?
After one of our team sent round this Medium postcalling out Billabong for what the author, Karen Knowlton, felt was a particularly egregious display of female objectification, we thought it was high time to find out.
Do you feel well represented by advertising focused at women?
The good news for brands (and agencies) is that the majority of women in the UK do feel represented in the ads that are focused on them. (Note, this is not to say they feel well represented in advertising full stop, which is another question.)
However the bad news is that a full 41% don’t feel well representative, which falls far short of a satisfactory number. If you’re alienating over ⅖ of your target market, then your brand is probably not where you want it to be; and from a purely commercial perspective you’re very likely leaving money on the table.
And it gets worse. For brands targeting the youth market (commonly now referred to as Generation Z) – which we define as those 21 and under – the feeling of being represented decreases. In fact a majority – 53% – don’t feel well represented by advertising focused at women.
Back to more positive news, feelings of being well represented increase (slightly) for millennials (which we define as being between 22-35), a little more for Gen X (ages 36-55) and then trend back down to average for boomers (aged 56 and over).
Overall, how do adverts aimed at women make you feel?
To get a quantitative sense of how advertising actually makes women feel, we offered a balanced set of positive and negative responses, with the ability to provide other comments too.
As you can see, one of the negative responses (self-conscious) was chosen the most, while 2 out of 4 positive responses were picked the least (understood and respected).
What’s interesting is that even amongst those women who said they felt well represented in advertising, 26% said ads aimed at women made them feel self-conscious, and 15% felt objectified.
Of the 41% that didn’t feel well represented in ads, over half said they were made to feel self-conscious by the adverts aimed at women, with 42% left feeling frustrated.
Several found this so evocative, that they added further detail in a free text response, and were overwhelmingly critical of female-focused advertising, describing it as making them feel:
- Boxed in
- Over sexualised
- Pigeon-holed, stereotyped
- Patronised and condescended to
When looking at women aged 21 and under, they were particularly likely to respond to ads feeling ‘self-conscious’ and ‘objectified’ compared to women overall.
Millennials and Gen X responses were roughly in line with the general population.
Boomers were much less likely to feel self-conscious or objectified by ads aimed at women – perhaps showing a level of comfort in their own bodies not felt by Gen Z.
Although one respondent commented that “I feel they show too many young women and not enough over 55 women except for hygiene products.”
How could ads aimed at you be improved?
How can brands and agencies improve and make more women feel represented, less conscious and more positive or inspired?
This is clearly an evocative issue; we received almost 8000 words in response, with several women writing at length about personal views and experiences
And yet the consistent theme across so many of those answers was immediately clear.
Show more diversity, more ‘real women’ in more natural situations with realistic / attainable levels of beauty and body shapes. In other words, be more like Dove.
Here’s just one answer that nicely sums up the overall sentiment of responses (though I highly recommend you actually take a look at the responses in full here.)
“Represent women as real rather than an unachievable entity by displaying different body shapes sizes as well as professions. I’m sick of seeing the loving mother or skinny fitness girl in an advert and want to see people like me. Women who aren’t perfect looking and want to excel in a career or simply have fun. That’s how adverts will change things.”
Several words relating to particularly sensitive topics also came up again and again, entirely unprompted:
|Words used||Number of times||Example comments|
|Skinny||35||“Stop using skinny models”, “Less half-clothed skinny models, more ‘normal’ sizes”, “Happiness is achievable without having to be rich and skinny”.|
|Object / Objectification||18||“Not treating women as sexual objects”.|
|Perfect / Perfection||27||“Stop using photoshop to iron out the imperfections”, “Not always show perfect women that are super happy”.|
|Plus size||18||Plus size women are included to be ‘diverse’, yet they’re still only size 10-12. Use ACTUAL plus size women”, “Using the average size of a women as the usual model”, “More real plus size women”.|
|Real / Realistic||171||“Be real without being patronising”, “More realistic, and less fantasised”.|
|Stereotypes / Stereotyped||25||“Stop stereotyping women in the home as mothers and cleaners”, “Not only stereotypes e.g strong girls or pretty girls – why not both?”|
|Old||19||“Highlighting the good points of being an older lady rather than the bad”, “Stop assuming women who are 50+ are old and unfit”.|
As a female shopper, which of these images resonate with you most?
What kinds of females and images might help improve women’s perception of ads targeted at them? What images resonate?
The winning image is someone in a loose-fitting grey sweat top, a beanie and no obvious makeup, where her focus is on what’s doing, not on her as an object.
This is followed very closely by one of the classic Dove shots featuring a more diverse range of women; and then a mother with their child – not engaged in domestic heroics or posing glamorously.
And rock bottom? An image cropped from the now infamous (and banned) ‘Are you beach ready’ ad from Protein World.
How does this compare to your casting and images choices?
What if you’re trying to appeal to Gen Z?
You’d be even wise to stick with with the types of images depicting a diverse range of ‘normal’ women. Unsurprisingly ‘Mums’ appeal far less, and showing the fun/social element is more important to this demographic.
Millennials again hewed pretty close to the average, while the ‘Mum’ image was more likely to appeal to Gen Xers. Boomers generally identified less with any of the offered images, excepting for the ‘professional’ – highlighting a lack of diversity even in the options we provided when it comes to this demographic.
Top 25 Women’s Brands (Unprompted)
So which brands are doing a good job of appealing to women in advertising?
We asked ‘Name a brand that really ‘gets you’ when it comes to their advertising’ to measure – unprompted – which brands have cut through with a positive message.
In order of popularity, here are Top 25.
|Brand||# mentions||% of unprompted recall|
|This Girl Can||9||1.24%|
It’s worth noting just how dominant Dove is when it comes to unprompted recall amongst women as a brand that ‘gets them.’ With 12.8% recall, Dove was mentioned more than 2x as much as L’Oréal (the second most nominated brand at 5.4%), and 5x as frequently as Nivea, one of its major competitors (which had 2.5% recall…enough to put it well into the Top 10).
Getting it all wrong
Going back to that ad from Billabong, it clearly made one of their target audience pretty miffed, but what about women in general?
Well given the context of everything that’s come before, it probably won’t be a surprise to learn that the vast majority of women were unimpressed.
Providing the same range of positive and negative responses to choose as we’d provided in the earlier question, it’s clear that the ad is way off mark, eliciting all the negative responses far more frequently than positive ones.
And here are a few of the free text responses we got:
- Like men are adventurous and women just like to sunbathe
- Like we still reinforce separation and inequality
- Furious at the misogyny our daughters are being brought up with
- Why can’t women be on the other shot
- Frustrated – boys get activity and thrills – girls just have to look good /and do nothing
- Bored and uninspired
- Like I’m not allowed to do water sports because I’m a woman and I should be ready for sex always!
- Furious. These adverts perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that are reinforced in hate crimes against women and girls
An own goal
Ultimately the objective of advertising is to build brand affinity and drive sales, so how does the ad do on this score?
It seems a fairly cut-and-dried fail, with some 72% not being motivated to buy from them.
However, it should be noted that almost 33% of the reactions to this ad were positive, and over a quarter of women across the UK – regardless of age, location, income etc. – would be motivated to buy beachwear from the brand.
So while it feels like a tone deaf and ultimately self-defeating ad to the majority, those feelings are by no means unanimous. Which goes to show that if you know your audience, and even go so far as to alienate most people, the commercial outcome can still be net positive.
Most brands can do better, but it could be a lot worse.
Overall a majority of women do feel well represented by ads targeted at them, and many reactive positively or feel inspired by what they see.
However by still refusing to include a more diverse array of body types and contexts in most cases, many brands are alienating large swathes of their audience, needlessly making them feel self-conscious, and this is particularly problematic amongst Under 21s, who ought to be a coveted cohort.
Maybe you’d better served to look in the mirror rather than a glossy magazine next time you’re looking for casting inspiration?
Even better, use Attest to engage with real consumers so you can stop guessing, and truly understand your female audiences.