Why “Woke” Advertising Matters

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Imagine you were an alien from another planet, trying to form coherent opinions about human women and their place in this world based on advertising alone. It would be difficult, to say the least. On an average day, consumers may see sexually objectifying portrayals of women in beer and car commercials, as well as ads for cleaning products featuring housebound mothers (never fathers)—a more wholesome but similarly regressive stereotype.

In recent years, the “femvertising” trend has emerged to balance the scales of social progress with more empowering messages aimed at women. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which began in 2004 and is ongoing, was a pioneer that inspired many brands to follow suit. Some have targeted markets where women are said to be lagging behind in their development—e.g. Ariel’s “Share the Load” campaign encouraging men in India to help out more with housework. But so-called “wokeness” has an uphill journey ahead if it is to make inroads against entrenched sexism in advertising. Also, detractors have labeled the trend “faux-feminism” with no impact on the real world.

Gautham Vadakkepatt, associate professor of marketing at George Mason University
Gautham Vadakkepatt

However, research by Gautham Vadakkepatt, associate professor of marketing at Mason, finds strong indications that gender equality in advertising and actual outcomes for women are on parallel rising trajectories, in the markets that need it most. His forthcoming article in Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (co-authored by Andrew Bryant, Ronald P. Hill and Joshua Nunziato) runs the numbers to provocative effect, while making some plausible proposals about how, in the internet age, advertising could be a force for good.

The researchers used the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Development Index (GDI) as a measure of women’s development during the years 2013-2017, the first golden era of “femvertising.” GDI captures gender disparities in the Human Development Index (HDI), which covers life expectancy, education and income. While the study was not designed to establish causation, they found associations between changes in the GDI and overall advertising spend—especially for countries with high internet penetration and large biases against women (as shown by the Gender Social Norms Index, another U.N. metric).

Among other robustness checks, the researchers swapped out the GDI for the Gender Inequality Index as well as a basket of other developmental variables, such as maternal mortality, adolescent birth rate, and infant mortality rate. They also ran comparisons using the women-only portion of the HDI, thus confirming that the observed changes were due to improvements for women, as opposed to a decline in men’s outcomes. Foreign direct investment and population size—two factors that influence societal development—were also included as control variables. Regardless of the specific measurements used, the basic interaction between ad spend, women’s development, and internet usage held firm.

The researchers had some guesses about what might be behind this. They launched two follow-up studies to test their hypotheses. In the first, 140 people (fewer than one-third of whom were women) were shown an ad for a Fiat convertible featuring a suggestively “topless” model, and a Chevrolet commercial featuring a confident, gifted young woman athlete. Both were ostensibly car commercials, but the similarities ended there. It would be harder to find a more striking contrast between retrograde and progressive ideas of womanhood. The divergence was also reflected in surveys that participants completed after watching the ads. The Fiat ad provoked more of an angry, disapproving response (the technical term is “psychological reactance”) than the Chevrolet ad. The latter ad’s message of women’s empowerment was praised by both women and men. One person wrote: “I love this ad and wish more kids AND adults could watch it and really, really SEE it and understand why it was made.”

The second study was a multi-country analysis of the top 100 YouTube comments for the seven videos in the 2018 “Dove Films/Real Beauty Sketches” series (a textbook example of “femvertising”). Comments in more than 10 different languages—among them English, Indonesian, Italian, Arabic and Japanese—were included in the data-set. They were then grouped together according to four overarching themes: the insecurities and negative social feedback that harm women’s self-esteem; recognizing new empowerment possibilities as a result of viewing the ad; the desire to share the empowering message with others; and how the ads themselves could be improved (e.g. by showcasing a more diverse group of women, or by mentioning inner as well as outer beauty).

The authors concluded that the reactance provoked by problematic advertisements and the good feelings induced by “femvertising” can help build resistance to deep-rooted sexism. As a mechanism for communication and social networking on a massive scale, the internet is key to amplifying this pushback. To be sure, there are staunch reactionaries commenting online too. In the Fiat-vs.-Chevrolet study, Vadakkepatt says “there were people who like the sexist ad...who said they wanted to date the woman and all that. But there were 15-20% of the people, men and women, who actually said, ‘No, this is not right. You’re objectifying a person.’” In contexts where gender equality is particularly lacking, online reactions to “femvertising” can help even the score.

Vadakkepatt, however, would reiterate that correlation is not causation. He does not claim to have located definitive proof that advertising is directly responsible for women’s recent advancements. But his investigation traces intriguing connections and tests some intuitions that suggest the advertising that blankets our cultural landscape is not wholly divorced from the social progress, or lack thereof, occurring around it. This research is not intended to be the final word on the matter, but help provide a footing for future research and stimulate new questions around advertisings and women’s equality, says Vadakkepatt.

“As advertisers, you have a choice now, right?” he says. “What we’re proposing is that positive messages, empowering messages, would actually help. Not just to improve the brand of the company but also help society move forward.”

Source: Gautham Vadakkepatt, Andrew Bryant, Ronald P. Hill and Joshua Nunziato (2022). “Can advertising benefit women’s development? Preliminary insights from a multi-method investigation,” in Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science