When the ad opens, “Sarah,” a tired, disheveled housewife, wearily faces the prospect of wiping up a messy stove, when boom, a sexy, buff version of Mr. Clean appears. Mop in hand, the Procter & Gamble brand’s mascot seductively washes the kitchen floor, then the shower, steaming up the housework before morphing into Sarah’s “real-life” husband. Overcome, Sarah jumps into his arms, as the “You gotta love a man who cleans” tagline shows up on screen.
Although steeped in a decidedly 1950s sensibility, Leo Burnett Toronto’s “Cleaner of Your Dreams” commercial ran just last year—during the 2017 Super Bowl. One of the most talked about ads of the game, it earned wide praise for its humorous take on gendered roles, even as it reinforced outmoded depictions of women.
And that’s the problem, a big one. According to a joint study by JWT and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, released last year, not only do men appear twice as often as women in ads, but 25 percent of all commercials solely feature men compared to women, who carry an ad a mere 5 percent of the time. What’s more, the same study found that 85 percent of women become offended when seeing their gender negatively portrayed; 66 percent of them will switch off the TV altogether when confronted with such stereotyped depictions.
At a time when women are making strides across various sectors—last year’s Fortune 500 list included 32 female CEOs, the highest number since the magazine established the list in 1955, and in 2016 women continued to outpace men earning doctoral degrees for the eighth straight year—the ad industry has stubbornly clung to a narrow view of how to portray women. “It’s a powerful thing when a little girl has a badass female figure on TV to look up to, the same way boys do,” says Jen Wang, Publicis New York art director. “The lack of representation as a whole leaves a subconscious imprint. It manifests itself as that tiny voice in the back of girls’ minds whispering ‘you can’t.’”
But now, it appears the ad industry has reached something of an inflection point. White-hot movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have become catalysts, forcing agencies to take a hard look at business as usual and make some significant changes. One of them has been to install more women in high-powered creative roles. According to a 2017 LinkedIn study, 33 percent of all chief creative officers were women. While still underrepresented as a whole, it was a marked improvement from just two years ago, when, according to the 3% Conference, only 11 percent of all CCO titles were held by women.
While the needle has moved slightly, the impact of that surge has been substantial, as women creatives bring fresh ideas and new perspectives—and that usually means more progressive and inclusive representations of women as well as other segments of society.
“Women filmmakers are the biggest untapped pool of creativity,” as Alma Har’el, founder of Free The Bid, a nonprofit aimed at increasing female directors in advertising, previously told Adweek. “We have a skewed view of everything around us because we are exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages every day and 95 percent of them are done by men.”
For women, thinking about image and perspective is a feature, not a bug. “During the conceptual process, it’s so easy to fall back on gender stereotypes—they’re the low-hanging fruit of character development,” explains Jamie Silverman, associate creative director at Publicis Groupe/New York, who has worked on a number of campaigns, including work for Walmart. “So, when I’m working with a group to come up with ideas, I try to remind everyone when they fall into those traps. Most of the time it’s unintentional.”