How Advertising To Women Has Come A Long Way (But There Is Still A Long Way To Go)

Advertising to women has come a long way. Search for “vintage ads to women” and it can be quite a shock.

Thankfully, sexist ad slogans such as “If Men Hate The Sight Of You, Read This”, “Most Men Ask Is She Pretty, Not Is She Clever” and “Is It Always Illegal To Kill A Woman?” have been consigned to the dusty history books forever. But you only need to watch this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials to know that the way women are portrayed in advertising and the media still has a long way to go.

Things have changed though. More recent examples of marketing messages to women have changed so drastically that Ad Age even dedicated its cover to this story back in September, and often include themes of empowerment, strength and resilience.

Dove possibly got the ball rolling back in 2006 with its “Real Beauty” campaign, and in the last year there’s been a noticeable shift in the way brands market to women. And it makes sense: according to Nielson, two-thirds of family purchasing decisions are made by women, a dynamic that has undoubtedly helped to push this trend into the spotlight.

You only need to have a quick look at the Unruly Viral Video Chart, which tracks the most shared ads online, to see that a growing number of ads are geared toward women. The most shared ad to this effect from the past year is Cardstore’s World’s Toughest Job (1,948,478 shares). This ad is the ninth most shared global ad from the last 365 days, followed by Always’ #LikeAGirl (1,871,251 shares), originally posted in June 2014 with an additional boost when it aired during the Super Bowl,  becoming the 10th most shared ad of the year.

World’s Toughest Job and #LikeAGirl, in particular, exemplify two trends that have resonated with viewers this year: ads featuring young girls and ads that portray mothers. So what has caused this shift?

Unruly’s COO Sarah Wood was recently interviewed by Lauren Davidson of the Daily Telegraph on the topic and pointed to how the digital revolution created a seismic shift in the industry’s approach to marketing. “Dove’s marketing makeover might have been ‘a seminal moment’, but it wasn’t so easy to share video back then: Facebook was confined to university students, YouTube was just emerging and Twitter had not yet been launched.”

Now we’re finding it easier than ever to share videos online. A recent survey from social listening platform Brandwatch found that a greater percentage of women use common sharing platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter than men. On average, women have more than twice as many Facebook posts and have 8% more Facebook friends. So it makes sense that brands are utilizing highly emotional ads to target this social media driven audience.

Research from marketing communications company WPP found that women are more likely than men to enjoy ads featuring a “slide of life” or children. Men, on the other hand, favor a distinctive creative style, according to the company’s research. This analysis showed that men are also more likely to enjoy funny ads – particularly those involving spoofs – versus the more emotional ads we’ve seen in the last year geared toward women.

Young girls have been used as spokespeople for a wide range of campaigns, from selling feminine products (Hello Flo’s First Moon Party – 309,010 shares) to raising awareness of gender inequality (Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism by FCKH8 -760,234 shares) and inspiring the next generation of female scientists, such as Microsoft’s recent Girls Do Science campaign.

Other powerful videos that were highly shared this year include Coordown’s Dear Future Mom (821,841 total shares), P&G’s What I See (371,796 shares) and Simulac’s The Mother ‘Hood Official Video (250,246 shares), which all show the intense emotions a mother feels for her child.

Multiple research studies have shown how emotional advertising can lead to a lift across a wide variety of brand metrics. Research from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute found ‘high arousal’ advertisements are three times more likely to be remembered than low arousal ads.

Videos that elicit strong emotions are also twice as likely to be shared than those which elicit a weak emotional response, according to Dr Karen Nelson Field’s “Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing”. Videos which elicit positive emotions are also 30% more likely to be shared than those which elicit negative emotions.

But, it’s not all cute kids and motherly love that are the only themes coming through. Another ad in 2014 that stole people’s hearts was Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want”, featuring American ballet dancer Misty Copeland with her triumphant underdog story and stunning display of athleticism. Not bad for a brand normally associated with ads depicting men training in concrete gyms.

This traditionally tough brand elicited moments of inspiration and female strength that connected with anyone – male or female – who has tried to prove someone wrong. Another good example of this is Sport England’s brilliant This Girl Can campaign (250,051 shares), which shows women of all shapes and sizes playing sports and generally being badass.

The most important point is that it works. The Daily Telegraph this January reported that Nike saw a gain in quarterly revenue. Its CEO Mark Parker credited the uptick to the company’s effort to  market more directly to its female consumers.“Revenue for women’s [products] grew at a strong double digit pace, as we focused on realizing the significant potential in this large and growing business.”

Dove reportedly saw sales jump from $2.5 billion to $4billion since its Real Beauty campaign launched and the Getty Images’ Lean In Collection have grown 66% since February 2014, as reported in Adweek.

As companies continue to see business results like this, we can expect to see more positive message in ads targeted towards females, told through highly emotional storylines. The more intensely an ad can connect with the viewer, the more likely it is to be shared, and a brand can experience the e-word of mouth from a viral hit.