This is not just an advert, this is a feminist advert

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The Stylist web team
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As a festival of British advertising celebrates the industry’s past 100 years, Stylist talks to four female veterans about the campaigns they felt were truly revolutionary for women

Words: Moya Sarner

There’s a Kellogg’s advert from 1938 that shows a woman (holding a duster), whose husband says, “So the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks!” Another from 1974 shows a naked woman lying on the floor admiring a man’s shoe, with the words “Keep her where she belongs...” It’s safe to say advertising has not traditionally been a bastion of feminism. Change is happening but it’s achingly slow. At a junior level there are more women than men working in agencies today: 56% to 44%. But in the boardrooms, 68% of executives are men, which rises to 73% of CEOs. There are women at the top such as Karen Blackett at MediaCom and Cilla Snowball at AMV BBDO but they are the exception.

This year, the Festival of British Advertising is celebrating 100 years of advertising. To see how far we’ve come, and how much is left to do, four women who made it to the top share their stories from the battlefield and choose the feminist adverts that proved to them change is afoot.

“Cellulite on screen shows that change is coming”

Vicki Maguire is executive creative director at Grey London, and a founder of the Creative Circle Foundation. For her, Sport England’s 2015 This Girl Can campaign has changed the face of advertising

“When I walked into my first advertising job in the Nineties, it was like an old school boys’ club. As a junior creative, I was asked to change my name on a script from Vicki to Micky because they didn’t want to tell the client a woman had worked on it. Female creative directors are still so rare. Our group used to be called the 3% Club, because only 3% of women were at the top in advertising. It’s now 11% but that’s still nothing to shout about. And the racial diversity of the industry is embarrassing. You can’t reflect British culture when your boardroom is full of white men. That’s why the Creative Circle Foundation sponsors 15 students a year in our own advertising school. We have to grow our own people.

The This Girl Can campaign shows change is coming. They put cellulite on screen and showed sweaty bodies instead of toned physiques. It was a turning point in the way women are portrayed in advertising. Now clients’ eyes are being opened to diversity around shape, class, colour and age. I just wish I’d made it.”

“This Campaign said, ‘You’re beautiful anyway’”

For Kate Robertson, former president of Havas Worldwide, Dove’s 2004 Campaign for Real Beauty was a complete game-changer

“My mother was the first woman in South Africa to sit on a board of directors, so I was brought up to expect women’s equality with no discussion. But it’s very tough if the women around you who are getting promoted are sleeping with somebody senior. When I was running Havas Worldwide, I tried to change things for young women but I didn’t do enough. I should have been more overt in their promotion and their protection. We need to do more for diversity, and the inclusion of the disabled too.

The first time I saw the Dove Real Beauty campaign, it felt so revolutionary. I think it’s much deeper and more important than we ever gave it credit for. Until that point, adverts showed an image of the woman you wanted to be. But this campaign says, ‘I’ve got a strange nose, or skin markings, and I’m beautiful anyway.’ It’s about acceptance. A revolutionary advert today would be something that changes the way men think. If men don’t come to the table, nothing’s going to change. All the women’s groups and events feel nice, but it says to men they don’t have to bother about us. And if they’re not on side, we’re wasting our time.”

“You admire these girls because they’re not like you”

Fay Weldon, author, was a head copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in the Sixties. She has chosen 2013’s Like A Girl for Always as her favourite feminist ad campaign

“You look at these girls – being strong, bold and doing activities that are typically associated with boys – and you like them, not necessarily because you want to be like them but because you rather admire them for not being like you. It is a rather unusual campaign – the fact the images are interesting will make you feel better about buying that brand.

When I was in advertising in the Sixties, periods were not mentioned. The industry was glamorous and sexy. I worked for Ogilvy & Mather, the British agency in Mad Men – I would have been Peggy Olson. There was a lot of sexual tension, everything was going on behind filing cabinets. Sexual harassment is worse today because women don’t want to be harassed – in my days, they were rather pleased to be. Back then, it was so wonderful as a woman to use your abilities and be paid for it. When I was offered a promotion, one man told me: “It’s taking the bread out of a working man’s mouth”. I had men working under me, but people were more interested in what you were doing rather than your gender.”

“It’s liberating because she doesn’t care”

Carol Cass, former art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says that Wonderbra’s 1994 Hello Boys advert is more feminist than some people think

“Eva Herzigova is a woman in control, having fun on her own terms. She is as dominant as women in the Sixties who burnt their bras, but instead, she’s wearing a Wonderbra. It’s liberating because she doesn’t care.

Advertising was a man’s world when I started out in the Seventies, but it was nothing like Mad Men. There was a strange culture at Saatchi & Saatchi where everyone went home at 5.30pm because they all had wives. So I didn’t experience overt sexual harassment. I have a pretty friend who was a senior copywriter in another firm for many years, and she used to have to run the gauntlet of the entire agency every morning. I do think things have changed for the better for women these days because there are more of them. But I think that reflects a change in society as a whole – this is where women end up working, but they are mostly in account executive roles, while the creative departments remain a boys’ club.”

Fay Weldon, Carol Cass and Vicki Maguire will talk at Wonder Women, part of the IPA Festival of British Advertising; 9-12 March; ipa100