Femvertising: the evolution of women in advertising

In response to the advertising campaigns that for decades have represented a stereotyped and idealised image of women and of the female body, a pro-female trend was born in 2014 aimed at overcoming gender stereotypes and promoting inclusiveness and gender equality: femvertising. Let’s see what it is.

Advertising is an integral part of the popular culture: the messages and values that brands choose to communicate in their advertising campaigns reflect our society and the reality that surrounds us. For decades, the vision of the woman has been subordinated to the man and has always occupied a secondary role within a male-dominated and patriarchal society. This condition of inferiority of the female sex has obviously also been reflected in the advertising sector. Fortunately, over the years and after many debates and protests aimed at overcoming this gender gap, the condition of women has progressively improved on a social level and, consequently, also on a marketing and communication level.

When we talk about the evolution of the representation of women in advertising, we cannot ignore Femvertising, a communication strategy that mainly uses social media platforms and which aims to overcome stereotypes in advertising. Let’s see what it is and how this ideology was born.

Femvertising: what is it and when was it born?

The expression Femvertising was coined in 2014 on the occasion of a debate during the New York Adweek and derives from the union of the terms feminism and advertising to give voice to the “fourth-wave feminism”, a social ideology that uses digital communication channels and primarily social media to convey pro-female messages and values and take an opposite position to advertisements full of clichés, stereotypes or that discriminate or sexualize the female body.

The term Femvertising refers to a communication strategy that aims to promote a totally different representation of women from the past. Femvertising leverages female empowerment, resourcefulness, strength and independence of modern women and seeks to convey inclusive messages, which enhance different ethnicities and beauties, overcoming the gender-gap and the patriarchal vision of the past.

Gender inequality, as well as discrimination of other kinds, are issues that are very close to the heart especially of the new generations, who take advantage of digital media to express their support for these campaigns and activist movements, and to confront each other and create debates aimed at undermining some discrimination and obsolete or sexist ideologies.

To understand how we came at today’s representation of women in advertising and at the birth of Femvertising, it is necessary to retrace some important historical moments.

The evolution of women in advertising

1950-1960: the reflection of a male-dominated society

The 50s represent the post-World War II period and the so-called economic boom or miracle – a historical moment marked by an exponential increase in the production and sale of consumer goods. To promote their products and differentiate themselves from the competition, companies began to allocate large budgets to advertising on paper media and television commercials (it is precisely in this period that the famous Rai programme “Carosello” spreads in Italy).

From a sociological point of view, there were many differences compared to today: society was purely masculine and there was a patriarchal vision of the family: the woman was completely subjected to the will of the man and identified exclusively as a wife, mother and housewife. This situation is reflected in advertising, where the female figure was represented as the classic bourgeois housewife and associated with household products, appliances, detergents or food. An example of this is the advertisement of the US company Hoover, whose claim “You’ll be happier with a Hoover” is emblematic of the mentality of that era: the woman was a simple housewife whose happiness would depend “on having a brighter home, fresher colours and extend the life of her rugs”.

1970: from housewife to sex-object

The vision of the woman changed in the 70s, when she became a real sexy icon of advertising aimed at attracting and gratifying the male audience through alluring glances, sensual poses and semi-naked bodies. The female body and the sensuality of the woman became the real protagonists of the advertisements and acted as catalysts to satisfy the eye of the opposite sex. In this period the expression sex-object was born, as the woman was exclusively considered as an instrument of aesthetic or sexual pleasure.

In 1974, Weyenberg Massagic Shoes published an advertisement in Playboy Magazine depicting a naked woman with a winking gaze lying on the floor behind the brand’s shoe. The advertisement is accompanied by the claim “Keep her where she belongs”, i.e., at the feet of her man.

1980-1990: the first signs of women’s empowerment and the economic recession

The first half of the 80s was marked by continuity with the previous decade: women still played a central role in advertising campaigns, while the sponsored product was in the background. In this period, the production and commercialisation of consumer goods for personal use increased and interest in fashion, make-up, gym and slimming products amplified. A new ideal of beauty was born, characterised by a slender, very thin and flawless body. This idea of beauty will be dominant for many decades to follow.

Only towards the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, people witnessed the first signs of women’s emancipation. The woman began to be represented as an autonomous and strong person, sexually free and capable of having a working career. Society also started to celebrate women’s resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. An example of this is the Yves Saint Laurent’s ad, which shows a woman in the office sitting at a desk wearing an elegant jacket, a garment that was once worn exclusively by men.

The 90s represent a very difficult decade for the advertising sector as the economic crisis hit every area of society hard and the first budgets to be cut by brands were precisely those intended for marketing and advertising. Following the recession, the social differences between the various classes amplified and advertising began to appeal exclusively to a middle-upper class, which was the only one still predisposed to spend money. The figure of the woman became more versatile and multifaceted: the woman could be an entrepreneur, a worker, but also a mother and a housewife. It all depended on the advertising message that brands wanted to convey.

The new millennium

With the arrival of the new millennium, the advertising sector seemed to take a step back from the past: it no longer adapted to the consumer and society, but it is the latter that was inspired by the ideals and messages that brands communicated through their campaigns. Once again, famous models and movie stars were shown with their unattainable aesthetic standards of beauty that convey the message “thin is beautiful”.

All the progress made in recent years seemed to have vanished: the brands re-proposed some gender stereotypes, the sex-object vision returned and, in some cases, even violence was eroticised; this time not without arousing controversy.

The following advertising campaigns by Calvin Klein and Dolce&Gabbana appear to enact sexual violence and for this reason have long been criticised by the public.

Finally, since 2010 the values associated with gender equality, inclusiveness and body-positivity have intensified. Advertisements began to celebrate imperfections, different physiques, ethnicities and individual peculiarities. This allowed each spectator to finally be able to identify themselves in different beauties and forms.

The turning point in 2014: Femvertising

For the first time, during the Adweek event in New York, the expression Femvertising was used. It is an advertising philosophy which condemns advertising that aims to assign labels, stereotyped behaviour and which sexualises the female body. The keywords became inclusiveness, diversity, empowerment and freedom of choice.

Femvertising became so important that in 2015 the Femvertising Award was also established. It is a contest that rewards brands capable of creating advertising in line with the values of today’s society, eliminating any type of stereotype and breaking down the gender-gap and any other type of discrimination.

Here are some examples of advertising campaigns in line with the values of Femvertising.

Dove – Global campaign for real beauty & #ShowUs

Global campaign for real beauty is an advertising campaign by Dove that celebrates body-positivity and diversity in all its forms. No longer is only an ideal represented (thin, white and with a sculpted body), but the protagonists are women of different nationalities and different body shapes. They are everyday women, with their imperfection and their most dazzling smile. As the claim underlines, the new Dove firming cream is not only suitable for those who already have a body without imperfections but is suitable for all the different physical conformations – for those who are curvier, for those who have a belly. In short, to all women.

Dove is one of the brands paying most attention to enhancing a concept of beauty that goes beyond all preconceptions. For the new #ShowUs campaign, Dove has collected over 10,000 photographs of women and genderqueer people who identify with the female gender, with the aim of breaking down stereotypes on beauty and show women as they are, with their flaws and not as others think they should be.

Gucci – For the bold, the bright and the beautiful

Even the Italian fashion house Gucci, to promote its new line of lipsticks, has launched an advertising campaign that celebrates the beauty of imperfections. The protagonist is Dani Miller, frontwoman of Surfbort, who said she was bullied when she was a child because of her irregular smile. It was precisely her “imperfect” smile that made her the testimonial of the Beauty line of one of the most famous brands in the world.

The “For the bold, the bright and the beautiful” campaign immediately went viral on social networks, since it is a beautiful hymn to normality and authenticity.

Why is Femvertising still important?

The condition of women has clearly improved compared to the past. If only seventy years ago women were subordinate to men and husbands and considered exclusively as wives, housewives and mothers, today this is no longer the case. Women have made extraordinary strides on various fronts – primarily as regards employment, since today they carry out roles and functions within society that until recently were the exclusive prerogative of men. However, there is still a long way to go to completely break down any kind of inequality, eliminate stereotypes deriving from an archaic mindset and truly promote inclusiveness and uniqueness.

To this end, brands can play an active and very important role: through their advertising campaigns, they can choose to guide the public towards change by promoting a more inclusive and respectful language and behaviour towards women and convey an ideal of woman that can inspire above all the new generations.

Have you ever heard of Femvertising? Do you know other advertising campaigns that celebrate the authentic beauty of women and try to break down the gender gap? Tell us in the comments!

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Since I was a child, my school career has been driven by a passion for what I wanted to do when I was grown up. So I graduated in modern languages and cultures at the University of Pavia and now I'm studying journalism and communication at the University of Bergamo. Today I do what I like most: I work in the technical publishing industry dedicating myself in particular to social media and digital marketing at Eos Mktg&Communication, the publishing house of the international ipcm® magazines. If I had to describe myself in three words according to my hobbies and interests, I would say: globetrotter, shopaholic and motorsport-addicted.

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