The Media and Gender Equality: Beyond Advertising Strategy


To help liberate women, brands need to embrace gender equality in a real, tangible, and honest way.

by Anna Haddad cover Laura Redburn translated by Pronoia Tradutória

It’s inevitable. Our money – whether we have a little or a lot – is out there, in circulation, constantly funding more and more things. Every purchasing decision we make helps to power an entire world. It may be slave labor and environmental disasters, or social responsibility, local development and care for the surrounding community.

Gender equality has been on the list of socially relevant issues to carefully observe when choosing a brand for some time, especially for women.

The issue has exploded in Brazil in the last two years – helped by the Internet and various women's empowerment movements. From there, many women have begun to take an interest in the subject. It has become very clear that they are provoking a more conscious and curious perspective on the conditions faced by women. No wonder this movement has had such an effect on what women choose to buy.

No more male chauvinism

Sexist campaigns have been a constant target of criticism, tarnishing the image of some traditional brands. They generally focus on a male audience, objectifying and hypersexualizing women. They are apologists for harassment and rape that promote grotesque gender stereotypes in an attempt at humor and identifying with their audience. They often involve a beautiful figure, the stupid woman, submissive and incapable of making her own choices.

Despite being a common occurrence in fashion, it is also the case with many other brands connected to the male world: beer, perfumes, food, and others.

American Apparel Tom Ford Magnum

These campaigns are increasingly coming under attack on social media, often leading to a withdrawal of the advertisements in question. It is a warning that women are awakening a new force.

Gender stereotypes

In 2013, a study showed that 65% of women do not identify with the way they are portrayed in advertising. That is because many campaigns use gender stereotypes that are harmful to women, but often go unnoticed because they have been socially normalized. The bad driver who is only interested in shopping and superfluous possessions, the heterosexual cisgender woman who does everything for a man; these and other caricatures reinforce the imprisonment of women and perpetuate inequality.

Porto Seguro’s “Kinder Traffic” campaign, for example, reinforces the myth that “woman are a constant danger behind the wheel”, which permeates our culture and discriminates against women.

If we wish to talk about brands that are really committed to benefiting women and contributing to a world of greater equality between genders, it is important to take a closer look. Everything matters: the number of women represented in important roles, how they are dressed, their professions (mothers and care professionals such as teachers and nurses dominate, instead of scientists and writers), in which setting and context they are placed (shopping and gossiping with friends, for example), how they are related to the male figures (always the girlfriends and wives whose lives revolve around men), etc.

These are important and sensitive points that silently define culture and educate entire generations, often reproducing a social environment that generates a disparity between men and women.

Representation and Beauty Standards

It is also important to look at the number and types of women in the media in terms of diversity. The media always highlights women with certain aesthetic standards (straight hair, slim, white). Racial and body diversity is rarely represented from a real perspective: black women are not too black and fat women are actually only slightly larger than the standard set by women’s magazines.

woman punch

And we usually only see young women on television screens and in magazine pages. Research has shown that in the United States, 71% of the women represented on TV are between 20 and 30 years old, even though only 39% of the population is within this age range. Meanwhile, only 26% of women in the media are over 40 – and they represent 47% of the population.

“The patriarchal system – a system dominated by men – values women for being nothing more than breeders. Thus, their value is limited to the period during which they are sexually active and fertile. They lose much of their [social] value after that. It’s like they disappear when they reach 39” – Gloria Steinem, journalist and feminist activist, in the documentary Miss Representation

We grow up seeing a tiny portion of real women represented in advertising, which encourages the pursuit of an unattainable beauty ideal.

Empowering is not simply changing a stereotype

A common mistake made by brands trying to renew the way they portray women is to switch one old stereotype for another more modern one. If stereotypes previously revolved around having the perfect body, a perfect partner, and a beautiful family, today’s “new woman” is powerful, successful, strong, and intelligent.

The prisons change appearance, but they are still there, accumulating an endless list of things that women need to do to be good enough.

Empowerment and success are often interpreted as a simple reversal of traditional roles in the family, or a combination of characteristics seen as masculine (such as power, money, important jobs, strength, etc.).

Fiat Idea 2011 Advertisement

This is not what we mean when we talk about women’s empowerment. The issue is much more complex and involves deep social structures.

Brands need to help liberate women without creating new concepts of the model woman, which contribute nothing to achieving gender equality.

Simply talking about ’empowerment’ is not enough to increase sales

We are suffering the impact of natural and social disasters linked to the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources. In this broader context, making better consumer choices is just as high on the agenda for women as gender differences.

For a more specific perspective, it is important to remember that women have developed a more caring and compassionate view of their own health and physical appearance because of the empowerment process. This journey goes against over-consumption. More and more we want to free ourselves of unnecessary or harmful products, and this involves knowing what we are buying.

Shohei Hanazaki
Shohei Hanazaki

In the past, a brand’s most cunning tool was to use women’s weaknesses to make them buy things. Similarly, using empowerment purely as an empty advertising strategy is obvious and is never well received. Coopting the cause just to increase sales of things that people do not really need, without having a greater purpose or useful agenda regarding gender equality, only reinforces the problem, rather than helping to solve it. It is simply a new way of saying that we are not good enough, and that what we really need is their product or whatever it represents.

Good practices

There are brands that support broad movements for equality. This is the case for Boticário, which has not only promoted several advertising campaigns on the topic, but also financed the documentary Do we need to talk to the men? (video below) in partnership with UN Women Brazil. Another example is Avon, with their #Belezaquefazsentido (“#Beautythatmakessense”) campaign and the Avon Institute, which combats domestic violence through various movements, such as the Speak Without Fear campaign.

ESPN has launched a platform to encourage women’s sports in Brazil.

Campanha da Microsoft Brasil convoca garotas que queiram aprender a programar de um jeito divertido, incentivando a representatividade no mercado de tecnologia.
A campaign by Microsoft Brazil advocates representation in the technology market.

Gender equality in the home

Brands often think of gender equality simply as a topic to be addressed in a marketing campaign. But what about on the other side of the door? How many leaders of that company are women? Does it have committees to deal with issues related to women and gender equality? Are there incentives for hiring and promoting women? Is childcare integrated into the work routine? What is the ratio of women to men?

Seeing companies that embrace the issue in a real, tangible, honest way is worth much more than a good advertising campaign.

We need to look at gender issues more seriously. On the one hand, we, women, can make better consumer choices alongside our journey of empowerment. On the other, brands need to use their potential reach to create a new culture of equality.

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