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The Courage to Advertise Without Female Stereotypes


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.

One recent, high-profile and counterintuitive example is the Super Bowl salvo for P&G’s Tide, from Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. Absent was the familiar image of a women doing laundry. In fact, also missing was any overt pitch to female consumers, even though women are Tide’s primary audience. Instead, the creative employed the kind of goofy humor more often associated with campaigns targeting young adult men.

A faux infomercial teaser rolled out more than a week prior to the game via Tide’s online channels and NFL Network. The two-minute clip featured a self-consciously wacky pitchman with a Cockney accent demonstrating a patch designed to save “special stains” people might want to keep—among them, a splotch of fruit punch that looks like a unicorn.

A 60-second spot followed in the fourth quarter of the big game, tracing the journey of a miraculous stain shaped like San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. We witness the spill by a rabid Niners fan, the resulting media frenzy and finally the stain’s demise in the Tide-powered wash cycle of the fan’s wife, who just happens to root for the Baltimore Ravens.

“Her character isn’t simply there to do the laundry,” notes Saatchi creative director Daniela Vojta. Making the wife and Tide itself central to the comic payoff while avoiding the classic women-doing-laundry stereotype was key, Vojta says—an approach that resonated in a big way.

Adds Angela Natividad, digital strategist at E2C2 and a high-profile industry blogger: “It takes a too-easy trope—the hubby who has a freak-out over his divine stain and starts a cultural craze—and tosses the punch line into the more practical woman’s hands: Oops, she washed the shirt. Oh, it was going to change your life? Better luck next time, kid.”

Katherine Wintsch, founder of The Mom Complex, a marketing consultancy inside The Martin Agency, says the campaign’s “quirky humor and gender neutrality were refreshing for the category and represent a formula more packaged-goods advertisers targeting women should emulate. Who would think that a laundry detergent would do a Super Bowl ad—and that it would be funny?”


An offbeat comic approach also drives Target’s “Everyday Collection” campaign, which could well provide the ultimate ironic inversion of the female stereotype. Unlike Tide’s more traditional TV push, Target uses a Twitter tie-in to drive consumer engagement.

Crafted by Minneapolis agency Mono, Target’s campaign spoofs high-fashion ads by showing exotic women interacting with a range of ordinary packaged-goods and grocery items in unexpected ways. Especially category-defying are a spot promoting prenatal vitamins that shows a pregnant woman tearing open packages of Oreo cookies and another promoting Tide that describes “the other sock” as that magical something we all “yearn for.”

The campaign’s “Tweet-to-Runway” gambit takes the concept to its thematic extreme. Users were invited to use the #EverydayShow hashtag for a chance to have runway models read their comments. What results is a strikingly effective juxtaposition of models mock-seriously reciting product-related tweets such as: “Just found a dryer sheet attached to the sweatshirt I’ve been wearing all day. At least I smelled good.”

The approach manages to skewer supermodel and “women-as-sales-accessory” stereotypes without insult or condescension because it lets the audience in on the joke (in fact, for the runway iteration, consumers wrote the dialogue)—this, at the same time it celebrates the everyday necessity of packaged goods. “So,” explains Natividad, “you have this self-deprecating cultural interplay. You get this immediate recognize-the-customer hit, a nice marriage of the quotidian world to ‘untouchable fashion’ and a little bit of irony.”


Also tossing aside stereotypes while emphasizing social media elements plus adding utility to the mix is Ogilvy Chicago’s “Mommy Answers” campaign for Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies—which might hold the distinction of the least stereotyped diaper ad of all time. Absent are the usual cooing, crawling babies and moms at the changing table. In fact, the diapers themselves don’t play much of a role.

Instead, we get naturalistic performances in cinema verite-style, slice-of-life vignettes that show couples with babies on the way asking questions sure to cross the mind of any expectant parent: “How accurate are ultrasounds?” “What do contractions feel like?” “What music is best for my baby?”

Viewers are directed to huggies.com/answers, where they can pose questions via the brand’s Facebook page as well as get email updates, coupons and customized advice.

The Huggies effort, featuring traditional 30-second spots that drive consumers online where they can engage further with the brand, is an example of the seamless integration that’s become essential for marketers. “Utility and customization are going to win” for brands seeking to build relationships with busy female consumers, says Shaun Stripling, CMO and managing partner of Frank About Women, a consultancy housed inside the agency Mullen. “Give her shortcuts, something useful—and save her time. Her time is at a premium, and utility is the new value.”

Using Facebook in a mom-targeted campaign today is a given considering their immersion in the world’s largest social network. While the average user spends seven hours on Facebook each month, mothers spend about seven hours every week on the site, according to a Datalogix survey provided by Facebook. What’s more, moms average 25 percent more friends than the average Facebook user, and one out of every six of those friends is another mom—boosting the shareability factor.

“One of the things we recommend our clients to do is to understand what’s shareable in that market,” says Facebook’s Hunter. “You have to take into account what makes your brand something she wants to hear from and share with her friends. In the CPG space, that can be a little tricky.”

That is certainly true of Huggies’ “Mommy Answers,” which constitutes a bold stroke that carries some risk for an established brand. “It’s an interesting idea if you want to engage with moms earlier in the pregnancy, but there is an inherent tension,” cautions i-on-Women’s Craig.

One downside, some say, is that consumers might construe the campaign as a pushy play by Huggies to prod expectant parents to buy diapers months before they need them.

Let Others Do the Talking

While Tide, Target and Huggies strive to “keep it real” in their marketing approaches, at the end of the day all those campaigns still employ actors, writers and directors to get the messages across. That’s why brands are increasingly enlisting real people, often bloggers, to speak on behalf of their products, building consumer trust and driving shareability along the way. With such peer-to-peer communications, there’s less opportunity for the flagrant stereotyping so typical of major marketing campaigns.

That said, brands must choose credible partners and be willing to cede some control of the message. If consumers are satisfied that messages are not simply bought and paid for, significant brand goodwill, more shareability and meaningful conversation can follow.

Kelcey Kintner, a mother of four who authors the Mama Bird Diaries, a blog boasting 50,000 monthly pageviews, explains: “Too many of these companies are trying to promote themselves on social media with just boring promotional tweets or Facebook updates. They need to hire clever, funny writers who engage with the audience as a way to connect with women.”

As an example, P&G’s Luvs diaper brand let six bloggers, including Kintner, take over its Twitter feed for a week. Says Kintner, “Companies need to work harder at being a part of the conversation.”

Fashion and cosmetics brands have also made good use of that strategy. For example, L’Oréal’s Destination Beauty channel on YouTube features content by various beauty experts. “With an expert, even if there’s a little bit of brand integration, the experience is still very authentic,” says Julie Tucker Rollauer, head of industry and CPG at Google. “They’re not going to endorse a L’Oréal product if they don’t believe in it.”

In a sense, marketing to women has come full circle, as a category famous for perpetuating stereotypes is also helping to break them down. And the evolution continues, with brands working to create a credible snapshot of the female consumer while fashioning more relevant ways to reach her.

“I give brands credit,” says i-on-Women’s Craig. “They figured out savvy consumers aren’t going to fall for [stereotypes]. A lot of companies are making a real effort.” 

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