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The advertising industry sold us the perfect woman – do we finally understand the price we paid?

When Billie Eilish appeared on the cover of Vogue’s June edition sporting a corset and a magnificent set of platinum blond curls, staring into camera and daring anyone to object, it felt properly shocking. Many on social media berated her, vigorously and unforgivingly, for “selling out”. Eilish was unfazed. She is, she said, an adult. She has every right to dress as she prefers. And at that moment, she preferred a corset.

She was, in effect, claiming her womanhood, her adulthood, her right to present herself in any way that makes her feel good. She was growing up, not giving in.

Eilish should be free to wear what she chooses – so why the disappointment? We run a company that specialises in understanding female audiences and, more particularly, their relationship with the brands and marketing that attempt to attract them. And for 15 years, we have listened to women tell us how hard it is to conform to what they feel are punishing ideals.

The truth is that the ideals conceived, perfected and sold by marketers are powerful. We hear it all the time in our research – mental ticklists of “should-be’s” (usually thinner, often kinder, always prettier). Women resist and then fail to overcome the influence of brands that tell them they are too wrinkly, that their hair is too dry, that their parenting is too lax and that their boobs/lips/bums lack plumpness.

A Barbie advert from the 1960s.
A Barbie advert from the 1960s. Photograph: Retro AdArchives/Alamy

Whether we like or admit it, women live with the idea that it is our job to meet ideals set out by others (usually men). We may no longer live in a world in which the only way to achieve some sort of security is for women to make sure they appeal to those with power and resources (almost always men). But the dynamic, which tells us a story about how to be a “good girl” and match the needs of men at every stage of life, still holds huge sway. Little girls are taught that being a “good girl” means being gentle, soft-hearted, meek and emotional – the caring qualities that will stand them in good stead when they bear children and tend the family. By the age of six, the Fawcett Society revealed in a recent report, girls avoid subjects requiring them to be “really, really smart” (science and maths). It is impressed upon girls early that looking attractive matters – the same report showed that more than a third of seven- to 10-year-olds believe their appearance is the thing that matters most about them.

This focus on appearance continues into early adulthood. In the UK, our own data shows that women aged 18-24 believe their most defining characteristic is their intelligence, but that, at the same time, they believe society sees their most defining characteristic as their appearance. “Good girls” then get an opportunity to be “perfect mums” (the zenith of female achievement), who in turn show their girls how to be good. And so it goes on and on and on. When they age, the script for women fades and so must they. A period of beigeness, dissolving into invisibility, begins.

Modern marketing – initially populated and led almost entirely by men – took these imperatives and ran with them. It was a thrillingly infallible strategy. Ever since the 1950s, and the ubiquitous images of smiling housewives, marketing has honed particular ideals, crystallised them, painted and decorated them, then sold those pictures of perfection back to women.

And because perfection is unachievable by mere human women, this stimulated a bottomless pit of appetite for products. Girls could select from toys only in soft, pastel, gentle colours. They received dolls to look after and make up, preparing them for a life of caring, kindness and financial dependence. Young women were advised by brands how to be slimmer, have softer skin, whiter skin, shinier, blonder hair and the straightest teeth, all in the service of marital ambition. They were given shampoos and body lotions in the same pinks and pastels of their childhood toys. Mums were shown how to bring up baby, always smiling, always kindly (never tearing their hair out with the sheer frustration at always, always putting their needs last, never wondering, in the advertising, where dad had got to). Women on the other side of motherhood (say it quietly: “older women”) simply did not exist. They were helped to remain as youthful as possible in whispered campaigns focusing on products that aided anti-ageing. But they were never actually pictured.

For the past 70 years or so, this diet of perfectionism, cooked up by advertising men (it’s still the case that 65% of those who write ads are men), is what women have been consuming. And we are all now aware that setting up women to fail on a day-to-day basis can (surprise, surprise) make them unwell. By the age of 16, more than 50% of girls say they are unhappy with their appearance. Two-thirds of women believe that advertising is at least partly to blame for a rise in eating disorders among young women (37% between 2016 and 2019); our own research has found that 75% of women in the UK say “the way models look in advertising makes women feel bad about themselves and are harmful”. The pressures of being a good girl reach a peak when women are simultaneously parenting, working and looking after ageing parents: 81% of women surveyed at this stage of life say they feel unable to cope. Almost three-quarters of working mothers say they are struggling to cope, and 40% describe themselves as “hanging by a thread”.

The dreadfully named “fempowerment” movement seems to us just another perfectionist stick to beat women with

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True, marketers have over the past 10 years been making some efforts to take on board this possible negative impact on women, but have so far only drummed up a well-intentioned but rather shallow response. Women can now be bigger than a size eight and still appear in advertising (thank you, Dove and all those who followed in your footsteps); women of colour are featured now in advertising, too – although usually only in a lineup of other ethnicities, rarely if ever playing a starring role; “older women” are well represented by Helen Mirren, but don’t often appear in any other guise. At its most deluded, marketing’s response has been to set about – with great enthusiasm and self-importance – re-empowering the women it has been criticising. In reality, what this usually means is shifting attention from telling women how to look, to telling them how to behave.

The dreadfully named “fempowerment” movement seems to us just another perfectionist stick to beat women with. Where once women had to be thin, now they have to be strong. Where once women had to be beautiful, now they have to be brave. Women are told by Barbie to “dream big” as if their own lack of imagination is the cause of the gender pay gap (almost double the size of the national average in creative advertising agencies). Women are told to stop saying sorry by Pantene, when perhaps they’re just being polite. Sometimes, the messages these sorts of campaigns carry are a coded way of telling women: “Just act a bit more like men, would you?” Or, even more distortedly, the message is that women are somehow at fault for having believed the perfectionist narratives in the first place.

Starling Bank … doesn’t accuse women of financial incompetence.
Starling Bank … doesn’t accuse women of financial incompetence. Photograph: Lensi Photography/Starling Bank

But a glimmer of hope – a proper answer – is appearing on the horizon. If you look carefully enough, in most product areas, there will be a brand (usually made by a woman) that breaks with this twisted tradition. Instead, it stays in its lane and tries to do something helpful for its customers. Brands such as Frida Mom, with its ingenious range of postpartum and breastfeeding products. Or ThirdLove, which makes underwear for the wearer, not the viewer. It comes in soft materials and half-cup sizes – an antidote to the scratchy, ill-fitting, soft-porn male-fantasy-wear of Victoria’s Secret. Or Starling Bank, which doesn’t accuse women of financial incompetence (thanks for that campaign on the tube, NatWest), but pledges to make money easy to manage with a usability and transparency that has been previously unavailable to customers. These brands earn their place with female customers by just being good, not by making women feel bad. That’s not so hard to understand, is it?

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