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Marketing While Feminist: Tackling Gendered Advertising From the Inside

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When I fell into the wacky world of advertising, I was pretty sure I knew everything I needed to know about what made a good ad. Then again, I bet most of us who have seen more than a single season of Mad Men are pretty sure we understand advertising, and yet, even after I realized that no one at work had a bar cart in their office and that it wasn’t actually the 1960s anymore, I still thought I could fake my way through it. In preparation for my first day, I had watched a documentary on Netflix called “Art and Copy” and decided I had pretty much got the gist of the whole ordeal. My approach to advertising would be a simple combination of three things: an elaborate scheme of guesswork, random shots in the dark, and always asking one question: What would make ME buy this thing?

No, this is not going to be an entire essay about how my life is and isn’t like Mad Men (though I do fancy myself an up-and-coming Peggy Olsen), but it is important to make two things clear before I begin: I have a degree in Audio Engineering with no advertising background, and I am a feminist. When I stepped into this position—helping proof and coordinate audio advertisements for a tech company’s advertising department—I didn’t have much forethought about what that would mean for me in my personal life. Once a feminist, always a feminist: stand, fight, and die. I thought that would be enough to carry me through any challenge, even in the murky, slimy waters of advertising. I ran headfirst into the work, guns a-blazing.

But a funny thing happens when you try to marry strong moral principles on gender equality with a “targeted audience” description: Suddenly, you aren’t sure how to shoot anymore.

Working in advertising and being a feminist is, at the best of times, a unique advantage and at the worst of times is, well, just that: the WORST of times. Because my brain is programmed to “gender non-specific communication,” gender-biased writing seems to leap off the screen at me, like getting hit in the face with someone else’s spit. (Think about that one. It doesn’t matter how much spit it is; if it’s there, you’ll feel it, and it will make you die inside.) Identifying biased copy is the easy part. It’s simple to tell someone, “Addressing a female audience as ‘babes’ is, at best, annoying and, at worst, completely inappropriate.” The harder part is coming up with a better solution for the creative, because you can’t just say no; you have to say, “But what if we did this instead?”

Using the term “creative” has never felt more appropriate.

I am fortunate to work with an amazing team—all who actually DO have advertising and marketing experience, I might add—so when these opportunities for new or revised copy arise, there’s a system in place, and it usually goes like this: The client needs creative work or revisions to existing work. I write something for them—usually funny, always weird. Then, I meet with my team, and they tell me why it’s not a good advertisement. (Actual note I received once: You didn’t mention the brand.) I revise (read: add the name of the company in), and once it’s actually an ad and not just a funny thing I wrote, it goes to the client. In all these meetings and discussions, the same questions keep coming up: Is this fair to the brand, and is this fair to the audience? If either answer is no, I go back and try again, and then the bigger question arises: Is it even possible to always be completely fair to both?

As a feminist, I have made it a mission to train my thought process to reject traditional stereotypes or notions of gender roles in daily life, and part of that training is vigilance in seeking out those biases, especially in my own work. This is advantageous in writing copy for ads, because I’m able to have a “unique” perspective on how to reach consumers—unique in the sense that I don’t allow myself to cater to the easy, most directly targeted path: women love to buy shoes, men love to watch sports, everyone is always in need of a new car, etc. Because of this approach, I have been afforded the opportunity to slowly start to shift the narrative in a more feminist-friendly direction. I try to write strong female characters who are versatile in their interests and language. I try to write strong male characters who are versatile in their thoughts and emotions. I write characters that I know, men and women who treat each other as equals, and I hope that this writing will slowly shift the paradigm in the direction of a new normal.

But the goal in writing advertisements has to be two-fold. One: Write something that works for the client and their targeted audience. Two: Write something that is useful and positive for said audience. This is where the lines start to blur. People who are selling things are not bad people, just like people who are buying things are not bad people. These people are all just people, and that’s how we have an economy (I think). A certain shoe brand is not the best shoe brand in the world. What it could be, however, is a shoe brand that people might like, might identify with, and might feel fits their personal style. As a feminist writer, I want to connect people to things that they like, and I want to do it in a way that says, “Anyone could like this thing, and here’s what it is,” but sometimes I have to play to an audience—specifically, a targeted audience—and that can make me feel weird.

Every day, I find myself sifting through “target audience” descriptions, and as I read write-up after write-up of categories of human beings, I find myself thinking over and over again, “Not me. Not me. Not me.” Those are the worst of times. The term “target audience” is exclusionary in its essence. There are groups of people the client wants to hit with their campaign, which means there are other groups of people that are outside that target, and well, you can see where my system starts to fall apart here. My job, the thing they pay me to do, is to make sure that our advertising clients get the representation they seek for their product, and that our consumers get that information delivered to them in a positive, respectful way. For every big win our team scores in changing the narrative in advertising, there are dozens of losses we have to learn from.

There are battles still left to be won in a creative way that I haven’t quite figured out yet, and even for as detail-oriented as I am, it’s hard to keep myself from phoning it in some days. “Could this hair spray advertisement be better? Probably. Do I really want to sit here and try to fix it? No. No, I really don’t. I want lunch.” I mean, what’s one more campaign adding to the noise of stereotyping in today’s media? That’s when I have to remind myself: That’s exactly what it is; it’s one more campaign that didn’t have to be that way. It’s one more missed opportunity. Once a feminist, always a feminist, right? Lunch can probably wait.

In less than a year of working in advertising, every personal belief I’ve had about myself and the world around me has been challenged, something I’m quite sure a real-life Peggy Olsen might have struggled with, too. While busy trying to think how to connect consumers to brands, I’ve been forced to see how I connect to fellow consumers and brands, and in a lot of ways, that’s made me a stronger feminist and a more thoughtful consumer. My elaborate scheme of guesswork, random shots in the dark, always asking what would make ME buy something has, in its own way, worked out quite well. It has made me see other people as I see myself. Do I still think I’ve gotten the gist of this whole advertising thing? Absolutely not, but at least now I have an arsenal of better ways to address an audience than “babes.”

That will have to be a good place to start.

(featured image via AMC)

Eleanor Thibeaux is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer and audio post-production engineer originally from the Lone Star State. A tech geek, science fiction/fantasy fanatic, and dessert enthusiast, Eleanor is the kind of Type A person who puts “finish season 4 of Battlestar Galactica” on her to-do list. It’s important to have priorities. You can find her other works via her website, or follow her every important thought on Twitter: @ethibeaux.

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