Five clichés of woman (as portrayed by advertisers)

There's Perfect Mum, Great Granny, and Alpha Female. But do these stereotypes bear any relation to real women, or even help sell soap and beauty products? Ciar Byrne reports

She's pretty, she enjoys restoring endless loads of filthy clothes to pristine whiteness and is happiest when she's checking out her next-door neighbour's lavatory freshener. Welcome to the advertising industry's ideal woman.

She's pretty, she enjoys restoring endless loads of filthy clothes to pristine whiteness and is happiest when she's checking out her next-door neighbour's lavatory freshener. Welcome to the advertising industry's ideal woman.

But advertisers' interpretation of 21st-century woman is a major turn-off to the very people they are trying to attract. According to research by the global brand-design agency Enterprise IG, 91 per cent of women believe that advertisers do not understand them and 58 per cent are positively annoyed at the way in which marketers target them.

And next month, the advertising and marketing industry will overhaul the way it portrays women at its first Rethink Pink conference in London.

Marketing campaigns tend to place women into one of five demographic categories that many feel do not reflect their lives - the Perfect Mum, the Alpha Female, the Fashionista, the Beauty Bunny and the Great Granny - says Rebekka Bay, the head of consumer trends at Enterprise IG.

Adverts such as the campaign for the soft drink Sunny Delight, which portrays a Perfect Mum giving her younger child a tray of glasses to take outside to his older brother and his friends, fail to recognise the reality of modern motherhood, believes Ms Bay.

Equally outdated are images of hard-nosed Alpha Females obsessed with their careers and grandmothers as grey-haired old ladies whose only concern in life is their families.

"The Perfect Mum stereotype is being shattered, as women no longer leave their personality behind when they become mothers," said Ms Bay. "The Alpha Female is exhausted by her 'power woman role' and is downshifting in order to balance professional responsibilities and family life. And the Great Granny no longer wants to be such a great granny. She is too busy surfing the internet, e-mailing friends and practising yoga."

The stereotypes are conveyed through language as well as visual images. For example the image of the Alpha Female is evident in a recent advert for Jaguar cars which carries the strapline: "Only the rustle of the Harvey Nichols bags in the back reminds you it's an estate."

Ms Bay points to major demographic changes with which she believes advertisers have failed to keep pace, including the decline in the number of people getting married, the increase in older first-time mothers and single mothers by choice, and the increasing financial independence of women.

"The result of these social shifts is that a large number of single working women are earning lots of money and are highly influential customers and taste makers. They feel free to spend and consume as they wish, and are prime candidates for the sort of brands that pay real attention to their specific needs and allow for relationships."

Jonathan Mildenhall, the managing director of the leading advertising agency TBWA, agrees that advertisers have failed to keep up with the social trends reflected in television programmes such as Sex and the City and Smack the Pony.

"Broadcasters are the ones reflecting the real lifestyles of women today and the advertisers are doing nothing about it. Advertising images are saccharine," Mr Mildenhall said. "You see characters like Carrie and Samantha in Sex and the City - strong, independent women with emotions, to whom other women can relate and aspire to be. Then in the ad break what do you get? The new feisty Oxo mum. Advertising is two- dimensional now. There was a time when advertising was inspirational. I don't know of any inspirational images of women in advertising now."

Before the 1970s, it was rare to see women in advertising who were not in the home doing housework. Then in the 1970s, adverts such as the campaign for Charlie perfume heralded a shift in perception. For the first time a woman was seen as an independent figure, enjoying herself outside the home by riding a bike.

In the 1980s, as women began to establish themselves in the workplace, advertisers started to reflect this trend, and in the 1990s there was another shift, with advertisers portraying women as ladettes and sexual predators. This was the era of the classic Diet Coke campaign which featured women office workers wolf-whistling at a builder.

But both Mr Mildenhall and Ms Bay believe that advertisers have failed to keep up with the rapid changes in female lifestyles during the past five years. Mr Mildenhall identifies five key changes in women's lifestyles that marketers should take into account. First, women are increasingly adopting male behaviour, for example in their approach to alcohol. Second, they are doing better than men in education, but not in the workplace - while they make up half of the workforce, there is still a massive pay imbalance. Third, while women are getting older, they are acting younger. For example, a 45-year-old might wear the same clothes as her teenage daughter - without looking ridiculous or in any way unusual. Fourth, women are having children much later and are less likely to stay at home with them. And finally, women are increasingly important when it comes to making purchasing decisions. But advertisers are still afraid to address them.

"Advertisers are lazy in their approach to consumers. They're stuck in a 1990s time warp where they think if they add a bit of emotion, they've done their job. Consumers have changed rapidly over the last five years," said Ms Bay.

She argues that advertisers need to go back to grass roots and change the way they research female consumers. Instead of focus groups where participants are simply asked what they think about a particular product, she believes that marketers should find out more about all aspects of women's lives.

"We already understand that women are different from men. Now we need to understand that women are different from one another. They want to be catered to as individuals," said Ms Bay. "The days when it was possible to mass-market something are probably over. You need to be more specific in who you're aiming at.

"Advertisers need to do ethnographic research and talk to consumers about everything in their lives, not just the product they are marketing. If you speak about their passions, you might get some insights that are really useful."

Peter Frost of the Proficiency Group, who is organising the Rethink Pink conference, suggests that the reason marketers are failing women is because the industry is still very maledominated.

"Ninety per cent of marketing is done by men and it's aimed at men. When they talk about women, they pussyfoot around and take a gentler approach. Women are time-poor and need a much bolder approach," Mr Frost said.

Some adverts, however, are getting it right. Mr Mildenhall points to the marketing campaign for the Apple iPod, which he says has gained the brand "greater sympathy than any other computer brand" among women. The controversial FCUK adverts have also gone down well with both sexes, because they are "attitudinal" rather than conforming to stereotypes.

Dove's "real women" campaign, which uses women of varying shapes and sizes to advertise the bath product, is another example of a positive portrayal of women, according to Ms Bay. "What they are aiming at is right, it's real women and their real lives," she said.

Ikea adverts also get the thumbs up. "They have a clear nationality, but they add local interest to their advertising. There's a huge difference between Ikea advertising in Sweden and in local markets," Ms Bay said.

Claire Beale, the editor of the advertising weekly trade magazine Campaign, disagrees that stereotyping is necessarily a bad thing, however. "Some of the categories are quite positive. Advertisers often use stereotypes because they don't have long to tell their story. In 30 seconds you don't have long to build up a character.

"I think it's very positive that there are now more types of women. There used to be only one or two - the put-upon wife and the air-headed bimbo. Men are also stereotyped in a number of ways, so it's unfair just to focus on women."

But John Frood, director of planning at the marketing communications agency Zalpha, warns that advertisers are shooting themselves in the foot by applying generalisations to female consumers.

"One of the things we are guilty of as an industry is taking the easy way out. By using those stereotypes, you create the opposite reaction to what you are aiming for, which is building trust and creating a connection. Instead you end up with instantaneous rejection."

He believes that the traditional divisions of gender and age have been replaced by attitudes, and argues that this is what marketers must tune into.

"Gender does have a role and we do need to think about it, but thinking about it first isn't necessarily the right thing to do. Age, gender, social class - all these things are diffusing as a means of segmenting people. I can wear the same brands as my son, we like the same music, we both think the environment is an important issue and we both hate the war in Iraq. We are living in the age of the attitude."

THE PERFECT MUM

Example: Lynda Bellingham and Oxo

We see her every time a household product or an everyday commodity is advertised. Her biggest concern is her children. She has pushed away every other need in her life. She's a mum, she's not an individual. She's definitely not sexy or ambitious. She's the Oxo mum, and the mother in the Sunny Delight ads. She also features in adverts for Persil and Johnson's baby products.

THE ALPHA FEMALE

Example: Gucci's predatory female

She's a very powerful professional whose main focus in life is on her career. She's definitely in control, but she is taken out of context - her entire life is work. She is not shown as a mother, a wife or a lover. She features in car adverts, for Jaguar, Ford and Honda and in the recent Gucci campaign. She's rather scary, but then that's supposed to be all part of the thrill.

THE BEAUTY BUNNY

Example: Isabella Rossellini and Lancome

She believes that just because there is a bit of science in a beauty product it will work. She is into every new invention in the beauty industry and reserves her greatest enthusiasm for the latest shampoo or face cream. L'Oreal's "Because I'm worth it" could be her catch phrase. Ironically, Rossellini was dropped from the Lancome campaigns because, she claimed, she was too old. Too real, perhaps.

THE FASHIONISTA

Example: Sarah Jessica Parker and Lux

She appears in every glossy magazine from Vogue to Elle and is portrayed as someone who is only interested in the way she looks. She wants to know about the new clothes, the new shoes, the new bags and the new lip colour (but unlike Beauty Bunny is not old enough to worry about skin care). She has neither personality nor, by implication, intelligence. Fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker features in the recent Lux and Gap adverts.

THE GRANNY

Example: Prunella Scales and Tesco

She is the Perfect Mum fast-forwarded 20 years or so. She has few interests outside her grandchildren. She often advertises insurance policies. In reality, most grandmothers are now very independent women who are into the same things as the younger generations. Tesco recently dropped adverts featuring Prunella Scales, a feisty twist on the grey-haired image, in favour of a campaign focusing on price.

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