Market to Empowered Women: It's Ethical -- And It's Good for Business

Misty Copeland

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Senior Entrepreneurship Writer at CNBC
5 min read

Sex sells. It always has, it still does and it probably always will. But there’s another theme that’s selling well: that of the confident, career-driven woman.

At an Advertising Week event this week in New York City, a panel of America’s top brand leaders said portraying women as empowered not only benefits society, but benefits businesses’ bottom lines.

Discussions about how women are portrayed in ads has been ongoing for decades. The difference now, according to these brand gurus, is that there is evidence the new paradigm is translating into sales. “It’s the beginning of a change -- a change that will stick because what we are starting to see is it works,” said Andrew Robertson, CEO of global marketing powerhouse BBDO Worldwide. “It creates stronger relationships with women, which in turn, results in selling more stuff… and I think, as people see and get confidence from that, we will see more and more.”

Related: Why Does It Still Feel Wrong to Make More Than Your Husband?

It’s a shift that won’t take place overnight. In today’s world, brands continue to find success in ads that feature hypersexualized, submissive images of women. Why? “The easy defense is ‘because it works,’” Robertson said, adding: “So does masturbation, but there is a better way.”

A number of companies have been particularly progressive in how they represent women. Some of those efforts have been outstandingly successful, particularly from a financial standpoint. For example, Getty Images, a leading stock image supplier, partnered with Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg (who was also a speaker on the panel) to revamp its portfolio of images of women. That portfolio of updated images of women saw revenue growth of 65 percent year over year, said Getty co-founder and CEO Jonathan Klein. “I can assure you the rest of our business is not growing that fast. So it is resonating both culturally and commercially,” he said.

In another example, Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles said she has been including more professional advice in the magazine, notably working with Sandberg on a career section. Not only has reader response been positive, but advertising sales for the magazine have gone up, she said.

Related: How Long Before Your Customers Trust You? Two Years.

The panelists pointed to several recent ad campaigns that have resonated with consumers:

A Pantene commercial, embedded below, created by BBDO Worldwide, challenges double standards held for women and men in the workplace. It has received 57 million views and more than 1 billion media impressions. Also, brand favorability, a measure of how popular a product is among consumers, rose 9 percent among the millennial set after this commercial, according to Robertson.

Sandberg pointed to the Dove commercial, embedded below, which celebrates men at home, as the flipside of the same coin of promoting women in the workplace. This commercial has had 90 million impressions.

Sandberg also mentioned the Verizon commercial, embedded below, which was narrated by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, an organization that promotes women in engineering.

Cosmopolitan partnered with Sandberg, BBDO and Getty in a campaign against calling young girls “bossy,” the same trait which young boys are generally celebrated for under the banner of being “aggressive” or having “leadership skills.” Cosmo published a section highlighting the campaign, including a piece penned by Sandberg, Getty launched a series of images specifically for the movement, and BBDO helped in the production of the following commercial.

Meanwhile, sporting clothier Under Armour, traditionally more popular with men, received widespread acclaim for its commercial featuring Misty Copeland, the celebrated African American soloist with leading ballet company American Ballet Theater. The commercial has been viewed more than 6 million times and brand preference rose from 9 percent to 19 percent following the commercial, according to Sandberg.

Television journalist Katie Couric was in the audience of the AdWeek panel. She said that while she was pleased that her 18 and 23-year-old daughters had raved to her about the Under Armour commercial, she still feels barraged with advertising glamorizing “hypersexualized women” and girls with “humongo tushes.”

Couric’s question put the advertising executives on the defensive, but led them to reinforce that the movement to empower women in ads is just beginning.

Related: Why Entrepreneurs Will Find GoDaddy's New Commercials Hilarious

“For quite some time we are going to be able to point to more things that irritate us than that inspire us, but if we keep working on it and changing the ratio, and if we keep getting really good results from the case studies where a better way is used, then you will see more,” Robertson said.

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