How Ads That Empower Women Are Boosting Sales and Bettering the Industry

Advertising Week panel spotlights 'fem-vertising'

They have become some of the most popular and polarizing ads in recent years. And despite the negative commentary, despite the trolling, despite all the anonymous sneering, advocates say these ads are working.

Marketing campaigns that empower women and girls rather than perpetuating stereotypes are proving to be hits with consumers and highly effective at generating sales, according to an Advertising Week panel of industry leaders behind some of the past year's top female-focused campaigns.

Titled "Fem-vertising: Women Demand More From Brands," Thursday's session in New York defined the movement as "advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages and imagery to empower women and girls."

Presented by lifestyle site SheKnows, which created the #BossyIs video featuring young schoolgirls, the panel was moderated by the site's chief revenue officer, Samantha Skey, and featured:

• Lauren Greenfield, director of Always' #LikeaGirl campaign and winner of multiple Clio Awards

• Kathy O'Brien, vp of marketing services at Unilever (who chatted about the Dove Legacy film released on Wednesday)

• Katie Ford, president and managing director of Starcom MediaVest Group

• Pam Grossman and Jessica Bennett, the women behind Sheryl Sandberg's jointly curated Lean In Collection on Getty Images

Panelists Jessica Bennett, Lauren Greenfield and Samantha Skey  

The discussion focused not only on advertising featuring women but also on the role the marketing industry plays in perpetuating negative stereotypes.

"Many, many brands make their livelihood selling on the insecurity of women and girls, and that's not going away," said Greenfield, author of the book Girl Culture.

But women control 85 percent of household purchasing decisions, and they're also vocal about the types of ads they want to see. In a survey conducted by SheKnows, 71 percent of women said brands should be use their ads to promote positive messages to women and girls, while 81 percent said pro-female ads are important for younger generations to see.

And while some people might balk and point out that advertising is a business, not a Kumbaya circle, the brands that are doing it right are also achieving amazing results.

While each of the featured projects has achieved a level of viral success (the #LikeaGirl video has reached nearly 50 million views since June), they've also had varying levels of product focus, with some such as Dove and Pantene barely incorporating products at all.

So the online success of such ads might be nice, but is it actually doing anything for sales?

Short answer: Yes.

Dove sales jumped from $2.5 billion to $4 billion since the launch of of its Campaign for Real Beauty, and Grossman noted that sales from Getty Images' Lean In Collection have grown 66 percent since February 2014.

"There's a real relief in seeing yourself reflected," Greenfield said, noting that women feel a strong connection when a brand can portray something relatable.

"There's a pay gap, a leadership gap and visual gender gap," Bennett noted. "You can't be what you can't see."

Panel members also noted that pro-women advertising isn't alienating; the movement positively affects men, as well. Men are also invested in making sure women and girls are empowered and have a healthy body image, and the Always campaign and Getty Images have received feedback from men praising them for their efforts.

"Imagery of strong women has been great for men, too," Grossman said. "They want to support their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters."

Roo Powell is freelance contributor to Adweek.