The Blog

Why the Tide Is Turning for Sexist Ads

Brands and the media have been smugly reaping in the benefits of women's vulnerabilities. They believed they had all the control but the democratisation of information on the web has restored the power to the consumer.

Female equality is a given today, women have the same rights as men and inequality is largely unacceptable. If a boss is heard critiquing a woman's appearance he will be reprimanded. If a woman wants a family she is also able to keep working if she wants to. If a man behaves inappropriately in public - from a rude comment to leery behaviour - he is guilty of sexual harassment.

Yet brands have sadly lagged behind. Whilst women have been striving to gain more places in boardrooms and enter new industries advertising has persistently told them to 'look thinner, prettier, sexier'. The rate of beautification and sexualisation of women has also speeded up. Airbrushing and cosmetic surgery have put girls under even more pressure to be perfect. 90 percent still think they are judged more by their looks rather than skills or talents. Social media has exacerbated the situation with new catwalk trends flying around the web - the bridge (is your stomach so flat it creates a bikini bridge) and the thigh gap (models thighs never touch) being a few of the many body fads.

It also starts early now with toy manufacturers widening the gulf between girls and boys toys in order to double their profits - pink, pretty frilly sparkly goods for the former and skills based practical ones for the latter. The message is loud and clear - girls you need to look like Barbie to succeed and boys be strong and smart and you will do well.

I suffered hugely from low confidence and was plagued with insecurities around my image. But I was at least protected at home, no pc, supervised TV and a few harmless teen mags. Now there is no escape - social networks are omnipresent and all largely image based - photoshopping apps, snapchat and even now selfie sticks to help the narcissism.

I have talked to many magazines about all of this, but they all are too scared to change their airbrushing policy for fear of losing advertisers and readers. One even said 'no one wants to see flabby legs or wobbly arms'.

I think they may find that the resounding success of the Sport England campaign - This Girl Can - goes against this thinly veiled sexism. The ad shows real women doing real sport. Its not about looking good or being gorgeous its about doing exercise, doing something you love. Men get to do it and have done for years. No one criticises their messy hair mid try on the rugby pitch or laughs at their jiggly belly as they box their way to victory.

The point of the ad, and the point of feminism today is that women are so much more than looks, figures and boobs. It is no coincidence that page 3 has been rather suddenly removed from the Sun, due to the growing twitter backlash against this gratuitous soft porn. I'd like to know how men would feel if their wives ogled taught torsos every morning over the cornflakes. I can't imagine Elizabeth Murdoch or any of the women in the family being associated with such demeaning images.

But the battle is far from being won. A few companies have led the way like beacons - Dove ten years ago with real women and their recent sketches viral aimed to boost women's confidence (we think we are uglier than the reality) and also the recent Be Real Campaign from the government that will lobby for self-esteem classes in school and all age, colour and shape models. Yet there are many many brands out there still behaving with same archetypal approach - glossy hair, slim form, perfect teeth to sell everything from sofas to soap.

It is time for them to shift to the meaningful communications - to have an impact on women, you need to connect with them in a positive way. How many of us have felt guilty or unhappy with our looks by an ad and so made a distress purchase? Did you ever really use it? Or buy it again. I have bought tubes of perfecter makeup and none of it works. More to the point we shouldn't care about our imperfections.

I made the leap about all of this when I left advertising - exhausted by chauvinist bosses and phoney brand missions. I took to writing about it and it led to a trilogy of books (The Ugly Little Girl), a fun fantasy tale of being true to yourself. Brands and the media have been smugly reaping in the benefits of women's vulnerabilities. They believed they had all the control but the democratisation of information on the web has restored the power to the consumer.

So editors, brand directors, ad land, change the conversation before we are forced to change it for you.

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