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Women’s History Month: The Evolution On How Women Are Marketed To

WHM: he Evolution On How Women Are Marketed To

Women’s History Month provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on how women have been viewed, portrayed and treated throughout time. The field of marketing is an especially great example of this as attitudes towards women and the role of women in advertising have seen a significant shift, often in line with political and social developments.

At the present time, there is a greater focus on conscious advertising, which involves including the excluded, being aware of changes in society, and seeing injustice and choosing to act, rather than being part of the problem. However, this has not always been the case, especially when it comes to the ways women have been targeted by ads.

In this article, we will explore how women are marketed to and how these strategies have evolved over time, starting before World War II and ending with the attitudes and techniques that are prevalent today.

Homemakers to Wartime Workers and Back Again

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the conventional depiction of women in advertising was as homemakers and housewives. During the war, this changed for two main reasons. Firstly, women took on many of the domestic jobs that had previously been occupied by men. Secondly, a growing number of women entered into the field of marketing.

As a result, marketers began to depict women as workers and target them with relevant products and messaging. During this era, in the United States, Rosie the Riveter became a cultural icon, appearing in adverts designed to recruit women into defence-related roles. Many of these women even referred to themselves as “Rosies”.

Unfortunately, the end of the war and the return of men to the workplace saw a regression. The 1950s and 1960s were largely dominated by attitudes treating women as homemakers once again and much of the advertising geared towards them was for domestic accessories and appliances, promoted via women’s magazines and daytime television.

The Housewife, the Sex Object and the Superwoman

Despite the fact that women accounted for almost half of the workforce in the 1970, depictions in advertising were still largely focused on women in the role of housewife. Yet there was also a growing movement that focused on women’s sexuality, often with some highly questionable results.

A 2019 feature from Duke University describes this as a misrepresentation of American women and quotes the National Advertising Review Board, 1975: “Advertising often features women’s sexuality to the neglect of her individuality. The charge is that advertising portrays women as ‘sex objects’.”

This subsequently gave rise to the idea of the ‘Superwoman’, who could juggle being a wife, being a parent, being sexually liberated and having a successful career. However, this era is often criticised for setting unrealistic expectations for women; a theme that would continue in different ways in every decade since.

Signs of Progress Throughout the 1980s and 1990s

Although advertising targeted towards women throughout the 1980s and 1990s faced the aforementioned criticism for setting harmful beauty standards and creating unrealistic expectations — especially in cases that featured women advertising their bodies as much as products — there were also some notable signs of progress.

One example of this was the increased presence of women within advertising agencies. Madonna Badger joined Calvin Klein in 1990 and spearheaded the brand’s iconic campaign featuring Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg, while also launching CK One. Cindy Gallop was responsible for ads for huge brands like Coca-Cola, Polaroid and Ray-Ban.

The famous Diet Coke Break campaign from the 1990s also served as one of the first examples of gender roles in advertising being challenged and reversed, with the campaign featuring men being objectified by women. This served as a good example of the advertising industry becoming more aware of the criticism aimed at its depiction of women.

21st Century: Diversity, Inclusion, Niche Interests

The turn of the 21st century saw a growing awareness that women make more purchasing decisions than men. This resulted in diversification of how and where women were targeted and the messages they were presented with.

Marketers have faced continued scrutiny over depictions of women in advertising, due to the impact on young girls, but there has also been a positive shift, with a greater focus on issues like inclusion and representation.

Emerging online concepts, including contextual targeting advertising and similar techniques, also allow marketers to reach women with niche interests and target them with content that is relevant to their online activity.

With that being said, there is still significant scope for further progress. In 2019, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media examined ads put up for awards at the Cannes Lions festival. It found that male characters were depicted as working twice as often as female characters. Men also had twice as much speaking time and screen time.

This represents a key area of opportunity for marketers to improve depictions of women further. Meanwhile, another opportunity involves including more women in marketing teams. Research shows businesses in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform their national industry medians for financial returns.

Closing Thoughts

Throughout the decades, there has been a significant evolution in the way women are targeted through marketing: from the homemaker depictions of the pre-war era and the 1950s and ’60s, through to the ‘sex object’ and ‘Superwoman’ depictions that were commonplace in the 1970s. Signs of progress were visible in the ’80s and ’90s, but it is only in more recent times that issues like objectification, diversity, representation and inclusion have been taken seriously.

Online marketing, the rise of more targeted, contextual advertising services and a growing realization that women are the main driving force behind consumer decisions have all led to a situation where women can now be targeted more accurately, with relevant content, even at times where they are pursuing niche interests and hobbies.