How can advertising really help to empower girls and women?

By Fiona Wylie, founder of The BrandChampions

When I started working in advertising over 20 years ago there really wasn’t much that was considered wrong with the Flash advertising, where the stupid husband who didn’t have an idea about cleaning, waited for his cleaning goddess wife to make the home perfect.  But equally, no one really seemed to mind about the Wonderbra Hello Boys campaign, funny that.  Or maybe they did, I just didn’t hear about it. 

For me advertising has always been my passion, not just because of the brands they sell, or the money it makes, but rather for the pivotal role it plays in our lives and as a result, the role advertising plays in empowering women.

The five things that I think advertising can do to empower women are written below.

  1. Create positive role models – When women see relatable figures in ads who have overcome challenges, achieved success, or demonstrated resilience, we all know from personal experience it helps build the feeling of possibility and empowerment. These role models can become a source of encouragement, demonstrating that barriers can be overcome and dreams can be pursued. How can we not at this point talk about Nike’s “What are girls made of” ad campaign, a brand that continually aims to smash stigmas and tackle taboos in empowering women? In this ad we see a little girl singing, changing the words of a song of what girls are made of instead of marmalade and rumours.  Alongside this, the world of women in sports has changed so much over the last few years, with these sporting legends becoming heroes to not just women but also.  Yet still, even recently we see ads reverting to the stereotypical roles of men or women.  Of course, our unconscious bias can’t help but kick in when we create this work, but it is the role of advertising to continue to present us with images that break down those biases.  Bring on the ads that show the girls as scientists, engineers, architects, programmers and not forgetting the sportswomen.
  2. Encourage opinions from girls and women – Showcasing real stories of women breaking barriers and succeeding in their endeavours, advertising can reinforce the message that their achievements and opinions are valid and valuable.  Like the H and M campaign, She’s a Lady.  A few years old but this ad told us to be fearless with our fashion choices and to be a unique individual and with the rise of social media the message to stand out and be your real self rather than fit in has become even more important.
  3. Break down barriers on taboo topics like women’s health – Finally, we see brands like Bodyform start to break down the barriers of period talk by showing red blood rather than blue liquid (which was met with outrage). How else do we expect to normalise the condition and enable men and boys to feel comfortable talking about this unless we can show it as it really is?
  4. Inclusivity and diversity – Many advertisements historically continued to present unrealistic beauty standards, contributing to body image issues among women. We’re finally moving beyond this to promoting diverse body types and appearances in advertising. We can’t possibly talk about empowering women without mentioning inclusivity and the amazing work Dove has done in this area to portray the beauty in every woman no matter their size, shape or colour. Every time an advertiser is choosing a model, they should be asking themselves the question is this really representing my brand, is this how we want to be portrayed? Advertising will help drive a more inclusive and positive representation of beauty, building self-confidence and self-acceptance.
  5. Build emotional intelligence – One of the most hard-hitting campaigns of recent times is the Have a Word, Mayor of London ad where we see the guy stand up to a group of guys, who are sexually harassing women.  Let’s start to show more of the good guys, the ones that have our backs, the ones who know how to treat, support and empower women rather than the ones who don’t.

So for anyone who got caught up in the hype of Barbie this Summer is she really that important for empowering women?  Yes, in my mind she’s a timeless symbol of empowerment, beyond the pink, she teaches girls they can be anything they want to be and there’s so much potential within each of us.  Our job as advertisers is to not undo the good work she’s already done for us.  As a Mum to a teenage daughter who is grappling with the new world of social media and always on advertising, I really hope she can identify the brands that follow these principles as the ones she wants to have in her life.

About the author

With over two decades of professional experience, Fiona has cultivated a wealth of expertise collaborating with renowned household brands such as British Airways, Nestle and Pfizer. Recognised as a ‘Rising Star’ by Marketing Week early in her career, Fiona has been honoured with multiple innovation awards.

In 2018 Fiona identified a unique opportunity to leverage her skills and knowledge to establish an agency that could seamlessly support both agencies and clients. This vision materialised into Brand Champions, a dynamic business specialising in Strategy, SOS and Skills. Brand Champions is dedicated to assisting clients with significant strategic initiatives, addressing short-term resource challenges, and fostering in-house learning and development. In her current role, Fiona is committed to helping others build champion brands through the comprehensive services offered by Brand Champions.

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