Ads That Empower Women Don’t Just Break Stereotypes—They’re Also Effective

So why are we just starting to see them now?

I 'll make believe that I am you," the girl says to the doll. With those seven words, Mattel introduced the world to Barbie, America's first fashion doll. The original commercial, which aired in 1959 (and of course is up on YouTube), shows Barbie in various outfits, from ball gowns to bathing suits. But then, as the music crescendos, we hear those seven words against a lasting image: Barbie in a wedding dress.

That's the kind of advertising both my mother and I grew up with. Women in commercials were portrayed as either mothers or models, wives or waitresses, with few depictions of the diverse lives we could lead outside of our relationships to men or children.

Susan Wojcicki  Illustration: Alex Fine

If we weren't arm candy, we were eye candy, as scantily clad women promoted everything from beer to cheeseburgers to gym memberships.

But recently, we've seen some brave advertisers portray women and girls in a new light, one focused on breaking down stereotypes, rather than reinforcing them. From Always' #LikeAGirl to Nike's #BetterForIt, women are being encouraged, celebrated, held up not for how they look but for what they can accomplish. And while the latest research from the American Psychological Association shows that sex doesn't actually sell, it's clear on YouTube that empowerment engages.

In the past year, the number of empowering advertisements that appeared on our Ads Leaderboard—our monthly tracker of the most watched ads on YouTube—more than doubled. A big reason for that trend is that people are choosing to watch them; the top 10 empowering ads were 2.5 times less likely to be skipped than their peers. To highlight this movement, we've collected those top 10 ads into a special Empowering Ads Leaderboard, featuring those that performed best on YouTube.

These ads don't just generate impressions, they leave impressions. Women ages 18 to 34 are twice as likely to think highly of a brand that made an empowering ad and nearly 80 percent more likely to like, share, comment and subscribe after watching one. We also ran ad recall studies on eight of the campaigns on the Empowering Ads Leaderboard, and all performed in the top 25 percent of their categories—with most in the top 10 percent.

So if empowering ads are so effective, why are we only seeing them now? Partly because women are being called upon to advertise to women. Despite the disappointing fact that only 11 percent of creative directors are women, half of the creatives responsible for the empowering ads on our Leaderboard were women.

With women expected to control two-thirds of consumer spending in the U.S. over the next decade, creative agencies would be wise to empower women not just in their ads but in their own ranks.

But I believe another big reason for the rise of these ads isn't just the artist, it's the canvas. With YouTube, brands can break free of the 30- or 60-second spot to tell rich, nuanced stories. They can take advantage of the creative freedom our platform allows to tackle complex issues like glass ceilings or gender violence.

Dove's Real Beauty Sketches, a video many consider the start of this trend, was a three-minute meditation on women's self-image, something you simply couldn't imagine airing on TV during a commercial break.

And perhaps most importantly, social media gives women viewers a voice and opportunity to talk back. We've seen sexist or regressive ads draw an increased number of critical comments and dislikes from both men and women on our platform, while hashtags like #WomenNotObjects and #NotBuyingIt have led thousands to critique ads and boycott brands.

I'm incredibly proud of the role YouTube has played in bringing more textured, inspiring stories to life, and I'm prouder still that a community of engaged fans is consistently watching and engaging with them. It goes to show that people are hungry for creative that inspires rather than objectifies. Savvy brands and enlightened creative agencies have a tremendous amount to gain by satisfying those appetites.

As for Barbie, she's got a new look and a new ad. In the campaign, called "Imagine the Possibilities," we see young girls giving a college lecture to a room full of surprised students, treating a sick animal, taking a business call at the airport and coaching a men's soccer team.

At the end of the ad, we realize the girls are imagining their own future as they play with their Barbie dolls. The message is still "I'll make believe that I am you," but this time Barbie's wearing a lab coat, not a wedding dress.

It's been watched more than 20 million times.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki (@SusanWojcicki), who is based in San Bruno, Calif., is also raising five kids, a flock of chickens and a pair of goats.

This story first appeared in the April 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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