The (mis) Representation of Women in the Media

We are living through what is potentially the strongest movement for gender equality in recent times across all industries, but has the way we portray women in the media changed?

Last month, Generate UK attended Technology for Marketing 2018 at the London Olympia. Having spent the day chatting to some really interesting marketing technology providers and attending strategic keynotes and panel sessions, one panel discussion in particular caught our eye – ‘The (mis)Representation of Women in Media’.

Having previously written before about the role of marketing and social change, we were keen to attend this panel session on the (mis)representation of women in the media. Since women first got the vote 100 years ago, the move towards diversity and equality has seemed to move at glacial pace – so why is diversity still falling short of what we want to see in ads, films, news and workplaces, and more? More importantly, what are our favourite brands doing about it?

The Technology for Marketing panel was hosted by Patricia DuChene, Vice-President of Sales at project management app, Wrike, who welcomed panellists; Lynne Parker, Monique Ellis and Sheridan Ash, as well as self-proclaimed ‘token man’, Luke Dowding. The panel observed that, while marketing technology has become more and more sophisticated in helping brands create incredibly targeted campaigns, ads themselves are so often still misrepresenting 50% of the world’s population – if represented at all!

The panel more widely discussed the lack of diversity in the media; film, TV, marketing, advertising and more. With regards to advertising in particular, the panellists cited a ‘cycle of inequality’, in which, ads do not truly represent a diverse audience, thus, does not appeal to a diverse audience, so less people will purchase, as the brand, product, series, or advert generally – is not represented as being ‘for’ them. Older women, in particular, are not even represented in adverts that should be targeting them, or including them in their targeting. Similarly, pregnant women and new mums are only seen in this ‘cookie cutter’ image – appearing in ads for formula or nappies – but not for much else.

Lynne Parker, founder of women’s comedy community, Funny Women, observed that ‘When we do see diversity, the media tends to rely on tropes and stereotypes as ‘safety nets’ to tick diversity boxes.’

Meanwhile, other brands have been accused of ‘jumping on the feminism bandwagon’ and using women almost as a novelty – or a fashion statement in their ads. The past few years has seen a trend in ‘femvertising’, that is, employing ad content – in any format – that includes messaging, imagery and rhetoric to empower women and girls. Capitalising on a social movement, essentially. A good example of this is Audi’s ‘Daughter’ campaign that premiered during the 2017 Super Bowl, making a progressive statement about gender-equality.

Inspirational right? Or rather, it would be, if Audi positioned themselves more whole-heartedly as a brand supporting gender equality and women’s rights… though for the luxury car manufacturer, this seemed a little out of the blue and the ad divided viewers, with many taking issue with the fact that Audi don’t appear to practice what they preach in the way of ‘progression [being] for everyone’

Equally, the ad did contribute and fuel to important conversations in a post-Trump-election world.

It’s ads such as ‘Daughter’ that had the panel discussing whether brands have to ‘go to extremes’ to challenge societal and media norms?  

Take a look at these two Special K adverts. The brand – that has historically targeted women, released this ad in 2013:


This one was released late last year:


Same signature, curly, red ‘K’; same cereal, same target audience, even – but very different representation of that audience.

Rather than paint their target audience as women whose biggest concern is whether their swimsuit is their ‘number one enemy, or new best friend’…Special K are now not only more accurately representing their audience – a diverse audience of women who just want breakfast, not a ‘swimsuit ready’ meal plan – but Special K’s images of women are empowering, particularly when paired with the tag line ‘everything we’re made of, powers everything you’re made of’.

Following a complete, brand reposition, Special K’s latest ad proves that diversity isn’t rocket science, and. In actual fact, brands don’t have to ‘go to extremes’, or even take a socio-political stand point in order to be inclusive and representative. As Audi demonstrated in 2017, making a broader, social comment with an ad campaign can be a big risk that will not always pay off (*cough* Pepsi).

However, sportswear giant, Nike, were ready and willing to take that risk earlier this year, releasing a series of ads commenting on the sports industry’s attitude to diversity and inequality.

It was not a great year for tennis this year, in the way of the sport’s double standards. At the 2018 US Open, French player, Alize Cornet, was penalised with a code violation for changing her top, meanwhile male players – namely Novac Djokovic were permitted to sit for minutes with no shirt on at all. Similarly, the French Open caused controversy multiple times, with its president suggesting champion, Serena Williams, be banned from wearing a black bodysuit. Just days later, Williams accused the umpire of her game against Naomi Osaka of sexism. Nike had something to say:

Serena Williams - Nike Equality Ad

Unfortunately, the issue goes far beyond the issue of the exclusion of women, rather, there is a problem with the lack of diversity and intersectionality across the board (Exhibit A – Audi’s board of directors…). With their 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ campaign, Nike challenged these disparities, with the above image of Serena Williams being just one of the empowering, socio-political images released by Nike.

Colin Kaepernick - Nike Equality Ad

American football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, protested police violence and the oppression of people of colour by not standing for the American National Anthem. Nike also donated to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” campaign.

By taking an unequivocal, political stance on social change, Nike’s somewhat risky decision to stand with sporting figures that have been at the centre of recent controversy resulted in a 31% increase in sales, expanding the industry giant’s market value by a colossal $6 billion. As a result Nike’s controversial ‘Just Do It’ campaign serves as a perfect example of TfM panellist, Lynne Parker’s, closing sentiment that ‘when companies get [diversity and inclusion] right, people buy their products’. Perhaps Nike’s incredible success will pave the way for more ads like this in 2019…

Want expert advice on where to take your next marketing campaign? Contact Generate UK today, or take a look at the wide variety of projects that we have delivered.