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Women in marketing have been far too complicit with sexist ads

If you were to do a Google search for "objectification of women," a majority of the image results would be drawn from advertising and marketing campaigns.

For too long, women in the marketing industry have been far too complicit with the objectifying portrayal of their own gender. We should all be embarrassed by the rhetoric and content produced by some members of our industry.

The truth is, women play a greater role in shaping the marketing and communications industry than almost any other industry, and we're failing our sisters, mothers, and daughters by signing off on content and campaigns that objectify women.

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Thankfully, it appears the industry as a whole is beginning to take notice.

Beginning this year, the jury packet for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – the "Oscars" of advertising – will include a series of guidelines about objectification and the harm that it causes. To win a Cannes Lions award this year, advertisers will now have to be more consciously careful about how they present women in their work. Cannes judges will be analyzing whether they would still consider the work to be effective if the women portrayed were their sisters, wives, or daughters.

This development resulted in part from the work of Madonna Badger, co-founder of New York's Badger & Winters advertising agency, who created the powerful campaign, #WomenNotObjects, something that is slowly becoming a blueprint throughout the industry.

Her powerful campaign video includes images from brands such as (the now deceased) American Apparel, Skyy Vodka, and Tom Ford. According to the video, campaign posters for those brands promote objectifying behaviour and lack authenticity for the brands or products they represent.

American Apparel's ads developed a reputation for containing photos that many observers described as exploitative of young women. Skyy Vodka has faced criticism related to gender discrimination with its ads that show men in positions that appear to dominate women. And Tom Ford's ads have featured cologne and perfume bottles used to barely cover female genitals.

Philip Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions' parent company Ascential events, told Ad Age the criteria in jury briefings felt like a natural step for the festival. The award ceremony has made progressive developments in recent years, notably adding the Glass Lion: The Lion for Change Award in 2015, which rewards outstanding efforts challenging gender biases.

While there have been statements, awards and mentorships on this issue, adding in this judging criteria will inspire the industry from the top down to make tangible changes.

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We are already seeing some marketing departments take positive steps to portray women in more positive ways. Dove's award-winning #MyBeautyMySay campaign and Nike's "Unlimited You" campaigns, are two that immediately come to mind.

In Canada, women account for a majority of household purchases and are seen as more digitally connected to brands. More than 79 per cent of females are likely to visit brands' social channels (compared with 64 per cent of males).

So why wouldn't brands want to market more directly to females with more empowering messages? We connect more, we engage more and we ultimately hold the purchasing power in our households.

As our industry continues to evolve, with social media and influencer marketing increasingly becoming a touchstone of our industry, we must ensure girls and women look at advertisements for inspiration so that they do not feel objectified.

We are at a tipping point. While the added judging criteria at Cannes Lions is a strong step, changes must begin from the top down. It's up to every woman in the marketing world to be a catalyst for change, rather than a perpetuator of outdated and objectifying motifs.

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About the Author
Social and Earned Media Columnist

A combination of entrepreneurial spirit and timing led Mia Pearson to co-found North Strategic, a communications agency built on the belief that social needs to be integrated into everything you do. A serial entrepreneur, Ms. More

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