June 4, 2023

Tricia Oak

Business & Finance Excellency

Yes, Marketing Is Still Sexist

When it comes to marketing, what do women say they want, but aren’t getting?

Cunningham: The fundamental misunderstanding in the way that marketing models work is the perception that women’s aim and ambition in life starts and stops with achieving male approval and patronage. In essence, getting married and having kids. Everything leading up to that is preparation and training to achieve it, and everything after that is a decline into beige-ness and invisibility. So for kids, marketing to girls is all about being kind, being sweet, being affectionate, looking after things. For young women, it’s all about your appearance, making sure you’re always as perfect as you possibly can be in order to seek and achieve male approval, and then of course you become the perfect mom, delighted and endlessly happy to have this baby.

But when you actually talk to women, their aspirations are not, in fact, to be beautiful through the male lens; it’s to feel comfortable in their own skin. It isn’t to be dependent; it’s to maintain their independence, particularly their financial independence.

The great female-made brands that we talk about in the book, like Frida Mom or Third Love, make women feel seen as they are, not as men want them to be. That’s the big shift that needs to happen. Brands need to stop telling women how to be, and start being in service to them.

But big brands have long had success with criticizing women to sell products.

Cunningham: Even if these smaller brands are not a direct threat to the bigger and more traditional brands, they are throwing into relief just how outmoded and old-fashioned big-brand marketing is. Once you’ve seen Frida Mom, a lot of the stuff that comes out of traditional brands starts to look really strange, really twisted and untrue.

How big of a role is social media in changing this?

Cunningham: Historically there weren’t channels available to women to talk to each other about how objectionable they found this stuff. Women were sort of forced to consume it. They didn’t really know whether everybody else was thinking, “wait a minute, this seems pretty punishing.” But now social media, for all of its faults, has also been a brilliant way for women to discuss what they find really objectionable about brands, and it’s been galvanizing.

Does the way things are marketed have a real impact on gender identity and self-concept?

Cunningham: There is a really big body of work around the impact of marketing and just how powerful it is — young women are consuming something like 10,000 messages a day from brands. Think about the collective impact that can have when the same things are being said over and over again, which are usually: Be thinner, be blonder, be more feminine, be hairless, be whiter.

Cumulatively, it does have an effect. But why not sell products in a way that is going to have a positive effect on women, not just young women but all women? Why does it have to be so fraught? Women have enough real problems that need to be solved by brands and products, you don’t need to make them up.