I went to college in Boulder, Colorado. I thought I wanted to be a psychologist- until I took Psych 101 my first semester! I hated it, so for the next 3 semesters I took a random assortment of required courses and a lot of Women’s Studies courses. Eventually my dad called me up to ask how exactly I was planning to make money as a feminist. I didn’t have a good answer for that one, but luckily he had a suggestion that would change the course of my life. He suggested I should use my creativity and take some advertising and media classes. So I did it and I fell in love!
Turns out it was pretty easy to combine my feminist views into my work studying and analyzing ads. Way too easy in fact because there are so many ads with a distinctly male point of view. I wrote a paper in my first advertising class about this very subject and my professor ended up asking to have it bound so she could use it as an example for other classes. The details of the paper are a little blurry almost 2 decades later, but I do remember one particular ad which featured a woman in tight jeans (I don’t remember the brand) and possibly no shirt spread out over a dinner table with her legs open and of course a seductive look on her face. The headline read:
“It’s ok if he looks at the menu as long as he eats at home.”
She was literally laying there like a piece of meat. Couldn’t have been more literal unless some man was standing over her with a knife and fork. It was awful, and my 19 year old self knew it was unacceptable. I didn’t know at that time that 97% of all creative directors in advertising were men. I also had no way of knowing that one day I would be part of the 3% fighting in my own way to create work I was proud of.
This leads me to coming across this video in my Twitter feed today:
It instantly brought me back to my days in Boulder. It also made me sad that in almost 20 years not much has changed. 97% of Creative Directors in advertising are still men. I don't know what the percentage was in 1998 when I had this first epiphany, it could have been 99%, but either way not a lot of progress has been made.
Women make 80% of all household purchases which means our buying power is clear. But inside the ad agencies of the world you are not being represented by your peers, you are being represented by white men. I mention white men specifically because while there is a serious lack of women in advertising in creative leadership positions, there is an even bigger lack of racial diversity in both genders. 2% of creative leadership is black, and that figure combines men and women. I couldn’t even find figures for other races or for multiracial individuals.
All of this boils down to the fact that the way society is reflected on your TV screens, in your magazines, and on your computers is created overwhelmingly by white men who have never lived your experience. This pisses me off on so many levels. The problem goes beyond the over sexualization or objectification of women, it also extends into how women of different races are portrayed.
I have been in advertising for 15 years now. I worked my way up from Junior Art Director when I was 21 and I am now the Executive Creative Director at a great agency in Los Angeles. I love what I do, but there have been moments when I didn’t. The first moment that comes to mind is when I was still a Junior Art Director and was handed a CoverGirl project. The singer Brandy was one of their CoverGirls at the time and one of my clients requested that I lighten her skin in the main image we were proposing to use for displays in a national chain. At first I thought it was my client’s attempt at an awful joke, but then I realized he was serious. I refused to do it. I brought it all the way up my chain of male superiors. I’m sure they thought I was over-reacting, but I wasn’t and thankfully I won that battle.
Soon after I would spend 7 years working on beer brands. When you think of marketing and beer you think of boobs right?! Yup, it was an experience. There were of course the projects with models "Frankensteined" beyond recognition. But there were also more subtle examples. I remember working on the Blue Moon brand. Blue Moon is famous for their painted point of sale which gave them a unique look in the marketplace. A female artist created all of the original Blue Moon paintings, but in the commercials it would always be a male hand creating the masterpieces. Did they think men wouldn't buy the beer if a woman was involved in the creation of the graphics? Seems strange doesn't it? It makes me sad.
There were also moments when the diversity was so lacking at my agency that I was put in charge of multicultural accounts. Me. Blonde haired, blue eyed, me. My qualifications were “Jen dates black guys, put her on the account.” So they did. Crazy right?! True story.
Bottom line is, advertising is a tough industry. Mad Men isn't too far off from the current day agency atmosphere. Long hours, demanding clients, boys club like atmosphere means most female creatives take their talents elsewhere once they start having a family. I get it. I’m a single mom and a Creative Director and it is hard. It is exhausting. But I also think it is important to have a feminist voices in this industry.
Seeing this video was a good reminder for me to keep top of mind every day in my profession. I now work in Experiential Marketing, so my job is less about casting calls and photoshoots and more about creating physical experiences, but there are still ways I can empower, educate, and lead my clients.
I also think it is very important for every woman and parent to really pay attention to how women are portrayed in the media. According to the @Not_Objects Twitter page 62% of women believe that any brand has the potential to empower women through advertising. My question is why isn't that number 100%? We as women need to start fighting for each other. In that same vain, we need to fight for ALL women. Women of all races, sizes, and backgrounds.
There are groups I rely on to inspire me and keep me up to date on what is happening, those resources include Miss Representation and AJ+. I also follow the 3% Conference, which is an advertising industry event started by Kat Gordon. The aim of the conference is to close the gap and slowly but surely they are making progress.
I would encourage everyone, as consumers, to educate yourselves and be really present when you consume media. We are so bombarded all day long I think a lot of people have gone a bit numb, but if you really pay attention I think what you see will anger you. The filters below are something the group at #WomenNotObjects have shared to enable everyone to assess ads for themselves.
Personally, as the mother of a tween daughter I am doing everything I can to promote healthy body image and I think these filters could be a good conversation starter. I also take these questions and more into my work everyday and applaud the women behind the #WomenNotObjects campaign in bringing awareness to this issue.