The pink stain in advertising

Originally published on

The most powerful force growing the world economy today is not China’s two trillion dollar plus economy. Nor is it the irrepressible Internet, which in just 15 years has taken over as the main media source of our era?

It’s actually much more simple than that. The real driver of commerce is not a radically new phenomenon. It’s not an obscure market, which has developed out of nowhere.

It’s women.

As consumers and producers, women prove to be a formidable force.

Women are making decisions about mortgages, mobile phones, flights and finance. It’s not just what women are buying, but also the power of their influence on other’s purchases. From helping a girlfriend choose a dress, to picking out a paint colour for a husband’s working bee, women are the powerful persuaders.

The statistics speak for themselves.

Women are responsible for 50% of DIY hardware products, influence 80% of all new car purchases, and make 75% of all household finance decisions.

The women’s market is burgeoning, growing at an incredible speed and presenting a world of opportunity for every marketer, whether they work for a power tool brand or pedicure company. The marketing world been told to “rethink pink”. Countless books have been published, conferences held, articles written, websites developed, and experts acknowledged.

Feminist foremothers have worked hard to improve opportunity for women. Today 60% of mums are in the workforce, either full or part time. Equality is the new feminist mantra.

Anna McPhee, director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, reported recently that a “stupid curve” proved that women’s career progression was being blocked.

Does the way we advertise continue to subliminally send messages that reinforce outdated behaviour?

Whilst many marketers, and organistaions, are keen to state they have developed their approach, their actions don’t quite live up to the rhetoric. They sign off on ads that use dated female stereotypes, rather than true reflections of women (and men) today.

They rely on hackneyed media solutions, simply selecting a schedule that includes a slot in Desperate Housewives, rather than reinventing their campaigns, or their offer.

They ignore the realities of who is actually buying their products and keep targeting the male wallet, rather than the female purse and the pink-washing continues to leave its insidious stain.

However, the blame does not rest with marketers alone.

Advertising agencies play their role in the conspiracy by producing embarrassing creative, which does the female market a disservice. Too often they fail to empathise with female consumers, instead patronising them with poorly thought-through propositions.

They disregard the benefits of getting truly inside a woman’s head. They answer the brief from a male point of view, rather than their target consumers.

From both sides of the table, the current model is flawed, producing strategies replete with inadequacies. Marketing to Women is stuck in a toolbox mentality, searching for quick fix solutions and treating women like dummies.

Why, despite the fact women are taking responsibility for 80% of the discretionary spend, are we living in a world where 85% of women say advertising doesn’t understand them?

Unfortunately, un-equal opportunity seems to be alive and well in advertising agencies.

A survey by the AFA in 2007 found women hold only 31% of senior management positions. So whilst women might be making 85% of all consumer goods purchases, within Australia’s advertising agencies they only influence 25% of decisions about how women are marketed to.

This inequality is more pronounced in the ‘engine rooms’ of agencies, the creative departments, where women represent only 29% of creatives and 12% of creative directors. Men are not only more likely to be writing the ads for women, but are also the key decisions makers as creative directors, sanctioning which concepts are presented for approval to reach the women’s market.

With such a disparity between the size of female spending and the male monopoly of power we’re left with an empathy gap. The elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.

The advertising industry is undoubtedly a boys club. In 2006 WPP worldwide Creative Director Neil French hit the headlines when he stated female creatives were ‘crap’ and should quit and ‘go suckle something’.

Whilst his comments cost him his job, they were symptomatic of some of the underlying attitudes festering in the industry. The fact they were aired in public will have done little to encourage women to flock to the creative department and redress the balance.

French’s comments represent the extreme. However, the effects of male dominated thinking and a more subtle disregard for women, and the women’s market, is evident in many ways.

It’s time to reassess old attitudes. And thanks to the work that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick – recently launching a five point plan to look at gender inequality issues – maybe the “stupid curve” will become an intelligent answer to equality.