The Courage to Advertise Without Female Stereotypes

How brands like Huggies, Tide and Target go beyond the clichés

Quick: picture a “mom.” Fifty years ago, advertisers and their agencies envisioned a domestic dervish spinning through her kitchen, preparing supper with one hand while waxing the floor with the other—despite the fact that the place was already spotless. And they created ads reflecting that idyllic scene. Problem was, as everyone has since acknowledged, such depictions in no way represented the complexity of women’s everyday lives.

Fast forward to nine years ago, when Ogilvy & Mather’s groundbreaking “Real Beauty” campaign for Unilever’s Dove shifted the focus from stylized images of magazine-model beauty to emphasize how women of all shapes, sizes, colors and social strata really look and feel.

It would seem we have evolved far beyond simple tropes and learned to more realistically portray women in advertising. Or have we?

Quick: picture a “mom.” A modern mom. What springs to mind? Is she in a pinstriped power suit, hair perfectly coiffed, reading a bedtime story to her kids while checking email from work on her iPhone?

While such images may be dynamic and, to some extent, flattering, they can come off as just as bogus as those housebound-yet-happy suburban superwomen of yesteryear.

Famously fearful of taking risks and steeped in the slow-moving process of creating campaigns, the consumer packaged-goods giants have long leaned on generalizations, especially when it comes to targeting women, often substituting one stereotype (the tireless, too-perfect suburban housewife) with another (the über-mom, juggling work and family while hardly breaking a sweat).

“Too often, marketers will generalize when they could have been more personal, more engaging,” says Sarah Kramer, president and global managing director at Starcom MediaVest Group, who steers the Procter & Gamble account.

Industry experts agree that a key challenge for today’s CPG sector—which accounts for more than $20 billion annually in domestic ad spending alone—is moving beyond catchall clichés and finding more relevant ways to engage female consumers.

How are brands doing in their quest to forge better marketing relationships with women? The results are mixed. Even the target audience feels a profound lack of connection. The oft-quoted Greenfield Online Study from 2002 found that 91 percent of women believed that advertisers of every stripe didn’t understand them. Recent research from Insights in Marketing’s i-on-Women unit suggests little has changed over the last decade. Just 17 percent of 1,300 women surveyed said today’s advertisers market effectively to females, while a mere 9 percent believed marketers were effectively communicating to them personally.

“Part of where they’re missing the boat is, they’re painting all customers with the same broad brushstrokes,” says Tinesha Craig, division director of i-on-Women. “All moms aren’t quite the same. All women aren’t the same. Companies haven’t figured out how to customize their message in a way that’s meaningful. I think they leave a little bit of opportunity on the table because they’re looking at just one aspect of who you are.”

Progress is being made as brands acknowledge that simplistic, broad-strokes marketing approaches are doomed to failure—and, in this social media age, subject to instant, widespread ridicule.

“Reaching the consumer wherever she is, wherever she wants to hear from you, is much more complex than in the days of the soap opera,” says Erin Hunter, global head of CPG marketing at Facebook. Without naming names, Hunter notes that “some CPG marketers are a couple of decades behind.”

The proliferation of digital platforms, the mainstreaming of social media and the rapid adoption of mobile and real-time platforms present more challenges for large, process-heavy marketers than the TV, print and radio landscape of less than 20 years ago. Even so, the conversational nature of digital media is actually helping clients break away from old stereotypes and clichés.

“Marketers have the ability for real-time feedback now like never before,” says Kramer. “Women have the ability to help marketers develop direction and make messages more relevant.”

That two-way street yields more data and insights than were previously available. “Data helps us to understand what’s most meaningful to them [and] to understand how women are unique in terms of why they engage with brands and why they care” about various products and services, Kramer adds.

Advertisers are slowly getting to know female consumers well enough to credibly reach different types and learning to stress, according to Hunter, “what makes a brand something she wants to hear from and share with her friends.”

Here are some of the brands getting it right—campaigns that are making strides in targeting women in novel ways while eschewing stereotypes.

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