International Women’s Day is usually a time for the advertising and marketing world to share celebratory campaigns designed to empower women and girls, as well as platform the female talent that drives the business. But it’s also a time to pause and reflect to think about how far we’ve really come, as a business and as a society.
And in 2023, that makes for sobering contemplation. Misogyny isn't going anywhere. Between brutal regimes cracking down on women's freedoms, the global scourge of VAWG, and the - perhaps - surprising rolling back of women's rights to bodily autonomy in countries like the United States, as well as the rather new and disturbing dynamics of online misogyny, this IWD we may not find ourselves where we'd hope to be.
Staying optimistic can be tough in the face of a news feed crammed with extremes of violence, from the scale of sexual assaults perpetrated by police officers in the UK to the cruel backslide on women’s freedoms in Afghanistan. Just as worrying, though, is the drip, drip, drip of misogyny online, via social media, where ideas perpetrated by the likes of jailed and dangerous influencer Andrew Tate find purchase with impressionable and desperate young minds (schools are reporting a surge of sexist abuse against both pupils and female teachers). And that optimism wavers further when one considers the sudden explosion of generative AI which appears to replicate the sexism of the Internet from which it draws its input. Text creator ChatGPT, from OpenAI, has been shown to create sexist performance reviews and even its CEO Sam Altman agrees that it has issues with bias. AI avatar-generating app Lensa has been shown to have a tendency to create nude avatars for female users - including children - and MIT Technology Review reporter Melissa Heikkiläarchive suggests a further intersection with race and ethnicity, finding women of Asian descent getting particularly pornified.
We’re barely in the foothills of AI and we’ve not yet seen what might arise from this intersection and interplay of ever more sophisticated social algorithms turning misogyny viral, in the very worst sense of the word, and seemingly unlimited, mindless content generation replicating the biases already baked into the internet. It’s tempting to despair and give up.
But brands and agencies may well have the tools and leverage to make a difference. Adland is packed with people who understand how ideas spread, how to nudge behaviours and who are immersed in the worlds of social media and new technology. Moreover, advertisers hold the money that can fund - or not fund - the business models of platforms and AI tools. And media owners, whether online, offline or a hybrid can take responsibility for how they shape the environments around us.
We want to know how the advertising community can use its expertise to mount a meaningful fightback for women that is more than just girlboss posturing.
Follow the Example Set By the Artists Fighting on the Streets and Online
It’s easy to get disheartened by the extremist rhetoric being spread on social media, but these platforms can still be used for good. Farima Moradnouri is director of finance and operations at Squeak E. Clean Studios and as an Iranian-American, she has seen the way that social media has empowered the disempowered and has been inspired by the artists and creatives in Iran who have used their creativity and platforms to galvanise global support behind a female-led uprising in recent months. So perhaps the first step for those in the industry is to think pragmatically and make the most of the tools and platforms that we do have at hand.
As an Iranian-American woman living in the US, seeing human rights stripped away has unfortunately been a big part of my life. In Iran, among the many rights stripped away from a country as a whole, women specifically, don't have the right to choose what they wear, to sing, to dance in the streets, check into a hotel or travel without the permission of their husbands; the life of a woman is essentially considered half of their male counterparts in so many ways.
Over the last six months, there has been a female-started and led revolution aimed at winning back some of those basic human rights which gained the attention and support of a global audience. It has also brought attention to how fortunate we are to live in a country where those types of things are never an issue. In a way, the advertising and creative industries have so much power surrounding the messaging around these kinds of vital humanitarian issues.
Similarly, with women's rights being challenged in the US and beyond, there have been a lot of brands who have addressed the subject, promoting their stance on a woman’s right to choose and fighting for that. If everyone uses their platforms to help spread information and create awareness, that is the most important first step to informing others of the current happenings and the consequences that follow.
Throughout the Iran Revolution, there have been many artists, creatives, and musicians that have used their platforms to create awareness and help be the voice of those whose voices have been silenced. Informing people and creating awareness by using platforms to spread news that isn’t covered elsewhere is one of the bigger actions we can take to gain attention and continue to inform.
In Iran, they are detaining protesters and giving out prison and execution sentences for people fighting for basic human rights. In the US, we don’t get exposed to the harsh reality of this as much. Unfortunately, it is largely because it is happening in parts of the Middle East, where, to many, these types of events just seem like ‘another day.’ Throughout this revolution, people have used extremely creative ways to build awareness. They have choreographed dances to famous songs and created videos to catch the attention of a global audience with a unique point of view. One Iranian artist, Shervin Hajipour, created the song ‘Baraye’ at the beginning of the revolution that became the song of this revolution and so globally known and celebrated that it won a Grammy for ‘Best Song for Social Change.’
That type of creativity is what we need to harness to utilise the power of this industry to help inspire change.
Get to the Root of the Problems
Sexism and misogyny are like weeds, with roots that are deep and ancient. So when it comes to tackling the issue, superficial messaging and some breezy ‘empowerment’ campaigns may not move the needle.
If the current AI hype has our attention focused on the generators, DDB Aotearoa has headed upstream, to look at the data that populates the internet itself - and the search engine biases that bury achievements by women and other marginalised groups. Together with 'Team Heroine', they’ve created 'Correct the Internet', to highlight and correct inaccuracies in internet search results, particularly pertaining to sportswomen’s successes. Priya Patel is CEO at DDB Aotearoa.
Our fundamental ambition with this campaign is to shine a light on the inherent biases online and to ask for help. We certainly cannot change the internet by ourselves, and we hoped to get public awareness and advocacy, plus meaningful support from different brands. We hoped that by creating a feedback tool, we could report statistical inaccuracy directly to the search engines and over time truly affect some change.
But ultimately, to do that, we need the tech brands and platforms. And this campaign is very much an invitation for them to engage in the discourse, look at their technology and think about what they could do to promote a better outcome.
We absolutely understand it’s not easy, but we don’t believe it’s enough to simply say ‘AI has learnt from humans, so we must live with the outcome.' All search engines acknowledge the ‘best’ search results they promote have many factors and inputs. In this instance, we would love for them to weigh statistical accuracy over society’s inherent and historical preference towards males.
A parallel example would be if you were to search ‘What is the tallest building in the world?’. There is a statistical proven answer for that – no matter who you are or where you are searching from – the answer is Burj Khalifa. At 830m that statistic is undeniable. If you ask, ‘What is the best building in the world?’ then the answer is naturally more subjective and that’s why Google serves up nine options as its first ranked result.
We would love for the same approach to be taken during a search for women’s achievements – when the question is statistically provable e.g. ‘Who has scored the most goals in international football?’ then non-gendered, factually accurate information should be served to everyone – no matter who you are or where you are searching from. If the question is more subjective e.g. ‘Who has scored the best goals in international football?’, we would love top scoring women to be ranked alongside the men in the search options that are returned.
I think as an industry that collaborates and partners with brands, we can all play a role in fighting back.
For DDB Aotearoa, we invested our time and talents to try and architect a tool that addresses the root of the problem i.e., trying to provide accurate factual search results. We believe that if young women can’t even access accurate information about the achievements of other women, it’s even harder to imagine positive outcomes for themselves – whether that’s in sports, sciences, or any area of their lives.
For all brands though the options for ‘fighting back’ can be relatively simple but meaningful. Really focusing on the content we put out into the world and applying positive standards can make a huge difference. By this, I mean everything from diverse casting, ensuring rich and positive characterisations of women, refraining from unnatural retouching; and really creating engaging stories about women, by women and for women is something we can do as an industry.
Make AI Work for Us
Amelia Markham is senior planner at Five By Five, an agency that has been doing its own research into misogyny and its intersections with social media and AI. Recent research inadvertently revealed the damaging effects of social media.The agency has also been looking indepth into the sexism built into AI image generators and Amelia believes that it’s up to the industry to confront these biases and get hands on.
We recently conducted some research among a 16-24 audience and, while it wasn’t central to our conversation, several of the young women we spoke to told us that they think social media is damaging their mental health. And it’s no wonder when we're seeing social media used to feed and further hateful content and spread misogynist views from men such as Andrew Tate.
It doesn’t help that some in charge seem unconcerned that their algorithms can amplify harmful content. Elon Musk, for example, has been accused of empowering extremism and hate speech since taking control of Twitter.
Interestingly, Meta has started to use AI-powered tools to rank material and moderate content. But it is now becoming clear that many AI tools themselves are biased.
Here at Five by Five, we’ve done some experiments to test this bias. For example, we prompted DALL-E to produce pictures of a firefighter, footballer and doctor. Each time it generated an image of a male-presenting individual. We also developed our own AI-based ‘chat up line bot’ as a bit of fun for Valentine’s Day but soon abandoned the experiment when it suggested sexist statements.
The more we use AI tools as an industry, the more critical it is that we recognise and redress the bias inherent in them. Ultimately, though, until this bias is corrected, there’s a question as to whether we should be using these tools at all.
That’s not to say there’s no hope. We’ve already seen some examples of AI being used for the greater good when it comes to gender equality – like the Gender Pay Gap Bot that called out companies’ gender pay gap data. More of this, please!
Change Comes from Within
As the aforementioned Gender Pay Gap Bot shows, with a bit of creative thinking, artificial intelligence and social media can be used as weapons in the fight against misogyny. That’s something that MRM has found.
Jayna Kothary is MRM’s global chief technology officer and she says that AI has proven invaluable in helping the agency identify its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And these tools also show that, instead of losing hope as a result of a perceived insurmountable external problem, what agencies and brands can do is take responsibility for what they do have control over.
The advertising industry is in a position of great influence, working with the biggest brands in the world. As experts in not only creative, but now also technology and data, we are able to use AI for example to diagnose where we are on DEI in the work we do, and to measure inclusion for us and our clients. This means being able to make recommendations to brands on how to better effect change, not only through words and stats, but through action. For example, we have developed and deployed a tool that measures and flags to individuals how they are doing against a set of inclusive behaviours online… critical in the hybrid working worlds we now live in. Driving changes from the inside out.
The world has to stop thinking they are making progress just by hiring into roles, and measuring diverse hires, but by driving action that addresses the root causes of policy, culture and behaviours. The next big step is going to be the nurturing of corporate cultures where women feel comfortable showing their vulnerabilities. This will have a huge impact. We in the advertising industry have the opportunity to lead the way here given we touch so many brands and businesses every single day.
Take Responsibility for Your Platforms and Channels
When it comes to media and platform owners, their power to shape our online and offline environment is huge. Katy Hindley is group innovation director at Posterscope, and she takes heart from findings that women and teenage girls have seen an improvement in representation in OOH advertising - a hopefully finding that those platforms operating in online spaces could do well to take inspiration from.
The Unstereotype Alliance – a UN women-convened thought and leadership platform – launched five years ago with the aim of calling out the harmful stereotypes that perpetuate in advertising, states that: “The advertising, media and creative industries are all about influence, so there’s no more logical partner as we go about trying to rid society of the ingrained stereotypes that are holding back humanity.” So to my mind all media channels, traditional and online have a responsibility to help address inequality and biases in society.
But as an out of home specialist, I believe that our channel can have a particular impact in this context, as it occupies the ‘active space’ where people are more alert and receptive to environmentally contextual messaging. It’s also democratic, accessible and culturally ingrained in our day to day lives, so it has the power to influence how we think about one another and how we act – and ultimately be a role model for young females (and males!) to drive change in society.
However, brands and their agency partners collectively, need to continue making a more conscious effort to think about the roles women play in ads. Unconcious biases can make it easy to not notice when a female character is, for example, placed in a domestic role by default. Recognising the importance of the social effects of advertising on gender perception, the ASA recently enforced stricter regulations on advertising content that promotes stereotypical gender roles, sexism and sexualisation. These regulations have not only reduced negative content around these issues but have incentivised brands to take moral leadership on such social movements.
A recent study by UCL Institute of Women of Education on women and teenage girls found that 49% feel the quality of OOH advertising has improved over the last few years, where OOH was found to be comparatively representative when measured against TV or targeted social media (21%). The insights also indicated that messages of female empowerment were increasingly present in OOH. So our medium can certainly contribute to the fight.
Fully Commit to What You Say You’re Doing, at Every Chance
Pony Malta is one of the biggest brands of non-alcoholic beverages in Colombia, leader of the Colombian industry, with over 60 years in the market. Working on its brand positioning, regarding D&I, we have learned that there is no such thing as a “small idea”, or a “small effort”. Every chance a brand has to take a stand against misogyny or bullying, it must take it. It can be the largest campaign of the year, airing on IWD. It can also be the writing and designing of the always-on digital strategy. As brands that impact massive audiences – in Pony Malta’s case, an audience full of girls, boys, and teens – we should seize every opportunity to create new representation and fight stereotypes on each piece of communication we publish.
We’ve come to realise there are two types of campaigns we can do, and we believe both are powerful. Pony Malta has made communication targeting boys and girls, encouraging them to participate equally, and to take a stand that they could share with the brand. But Pony Malta has also bet on ideas that most brands are afraid to: those that talk only to girls. For some clients, this could seem like a non-strategic choice for the business, because it looks like you are leaving out half of your consumers. For Pony Malta, and many other brave brands around the world, it is not only a chance to profit by engaging in a more meaningful way with girls and women, but also a way to contribute to changing narratives of gender inequality globally. To do so, Pony Malta has learned mainly that it is more effective to give voice to girls, rather than talking for them. To yield the brand platform and assets to the girls, without assuming anything, has been one of our most powerful tactics, that benefits the brand as well as its purpose and audiences.
This is a trending topic, between brands but also among people all around the world. Not only women or girls, also boys and men committed to equality and inclusion. Thanks to the ideas and campaigns that Pony Malta has created that have resonated with this topic, the brand has gained enormous PR value, and found a real reason to fill with coherence its appearance in digital media and video games. This way, Pony Malta popped up in teens’ and kids’ most consumed media, not with an empty advertising message, but with communication full of purpose and a clear brand position. Without this, Pony Malta wouldn’t have obtained the growth shown in the last four years. Today, Pony Malta has escalated to be the brand with the largest brand power among teens, diversifying its consumption equally between boys and girls. Before all the efforts in communication that the brand has made, this consumption was markedly higher in boys only.
Pony Malta faced three main challenges:
1. Educate the way our teams thought about and understood gender equality. Only when we did this, our team was able to think, talk and create ideas that were relevant to the audiences and the cultural context.
2. Offset the belief that brands only talk about these topics because of marketing and revenue objectives. We had to demonstrate to our audiences that Pony Malta is genuinely committed to ending gender inequality, violence and misogyny, and this was only possible because of the nature of our ideas and the insights that detonated them.
3. Challenge the belief that brands cannot talk and address conversations regarding gender gaps, types of violence and misogyny. These matters concern every player in the cultural reality, and brands are major influencers in every market and capitalist society. Pony Malta, as many others, is not only aware of that but also takes action.
Brands, clients, institutions, and agencies should have in mind that to create a campaign or implement their own effort can only be taken to life by a diverse, respectful, and open-minded team. Today, audiences (and specifically teens) perceive very easily when creativity, ideas and claims aren’t genuinely true. The way to tackle that is with brand consistency and by committing to everything we say, yes, but also by considering different realities, people, perspectives, and experiences that inspire creativity in a way that counterbalances what has been done since before and since forever.
Be Real About Your Impact and Practice What You Preach
Natalie Brierley and Lois Kettlewell are co-chairs of The Equals Network at the creative agency M&C Saatchi, which means they have an added role of champion better representation and encouraging more equity in the company. It also places them well to talk about the impact that the communications agencies do with their brand clients can have on vulnerable groups.
Online misogyny reflects the learned behaviours and lived experiences offline, but social media certainly amplifies these toxic messages and, notwithstanding the anonymity of profiles on platforms – trolls seem much louder online. So, brands that are connecting to their audiences through marketing communications or advertising must consider the impact on vulnerable groups.
Across all industries, brands and agencies have a social responsibility to share positive messaging. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more brands turn to conscious and inclusive marketing, in support of vulnerable groups and playing a role to inspire camaraderie and support: EE Hope United
is a campaign that combats online hate against female footballers. M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment launched the Absolut Choir
to raise the voice of changemakers championing topics like trans rights and body positivity. Yet, purpose-driven work isn’t a ‘nice to have’. It actually drives brand favourability. M&C Saatchi’s Art of Conversation report
found that consumers are now 40% more likely to buy from brand that speaks about issues that matter to them.
And we practice what we preach to brands too. At M&C Saatchi, we have dedicated Employee-Led Networks – communities of people that support and champion better representation and equality internally and for the future. The Equals Network for example, strives to support the gendered experience in the workplace through creating a safe space to share ideas and inspire meaningful change. This International Women’s Day marks a whole month of inspirational talks and workshops with experts employees can learn from. After all, what’s the point in pushing brands to do better, if we don’t hold ourselves to the same standard?