Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Advertising Women

Last week I mentioned Susan Stephens's Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby (published by Mills & Boon in the UK in January 2011 and published in the US by Harlequin as Gray Quinn's Baby). Stephens was:
asked to write a book set in the 60's with a modern day heroine for Harlequin Presents [...]. I love that era. The fashions and music were nothing short of revolutionary, while the 'so called' sexual revolution made possible by the pill before the shadow of aids had been identified, was said to liberate women. It was an era of compelling figures who would open our eyes and our hearts, and technical advances that were both fast and thrilling. And, most crucially for my purposes, women were fighting for equal pay and rights with men. [...]

I had my modern woman meet Gray Quinn in the current day. Magenta then falls asleep and dreams that they have both been transported back to the sixties.

The fun and games begin when Magenta starts to assert herself in this sixties dreamworld. ("Time Travel")
In the 21st century Magenta is working on a "fast-moving, retro ad campaign set in Magenta's favourite era, the sixties" (7) for her father's advertising firm but since he has the "outdated belief that men ran businesses while bricks and mortar provided better security for a woman, she owned the building but not a single voting-share" (12) and her job, and that of "Magenta's team" (21), is therefore at risk when her father sells the company to Gray Quinn. She's been working hard and late one night, when
She was halfway through drafting a strap line for a sixties hairpiece [...] she had to stop. She could hardly keep her eyes open and just couldn't get it right: the hair fashion that goes on when you go out ...
And drops off when you least expect it to?
[...] it was a genuine sixties product, Magenta mused [...]. She'd been so enthusiastic up to now, seeing only the good, the fun and the innovation of the sixties. But, realistically, how many other things about that time would have got right up her nose? (35-36)
Once in the "sixties dreamworld," Magenta discovers that she is now only the office manager and
men occupied all the private offices while the women had been relegated to old-fashioned typewriters - either in the typing pool, where they sat in rows behind a partition as if they were at school, or at similar desks to this one outside the office doors. Ready to do their master's bidding, Magenta presumed angrily. She remembered her father telling her how it used to be for the majority of female office workers in the sixties. (39)
When Magenta tries to convince 1960s-Quinn that he should "accept a campaign designed by a woman" (59) he responds that she's "forgotten the natural order of things, Magenta. Men lead at work so that women can enjoy a certain lifestyle" (59).

I have no idea how many women did work in advertising in London in this period but some did. Fay Weldon,
Like Mad Men's formidable Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss), [...] had climbed from the typing pool to become a highly paid advertising copywriter.

While Peggy worked at Sterling Cooper, I was working at the real-life equivalent of the big London agency that was to eventually buy out Sterling Cooper in the show.

I wrote copy for the Egg Marketing Board - 'Go to work on an egg'; for Aero - 'Bubbling with full cream milk'; for Guinness - 'Good for you!'; for Birds Eye - 'Sweet as the moment when the pod went "pop!"'; and for Imperial Tobacco, IBM, Shell and many other accounts that are now long forgotten.

[...] Being a new industry, advertising at least let women in. If you could do the work, they'd hire you; gender was immaterial. (Weldon)
and "Women in Advertising and Communications, London (WACL) has been in existence since 1923" (WACL):
It usually comes as some surprise to people, that WACL was founded as long ago as January 1923. It also says something for that era that the Club was founded by men, for women! Its 'Godfathers', who forever retained the Club's affection were, from the client side, Mr John Cheshire, MD of Lever Brothers, and from advertising Sir William Crawford and Mr CH Vernon of C Vernon & Sons.

The reasons for the founding of the Club were quite simple: firstly, a growing number of women were beginning to find their way into (non-secretarial) roles within the advertising industry, as saleswomen for advertising space, and as managers within advertising agencies. Even more importantly, however, a convention of the International Advertising Association was due to be held at Wembley in 1924. A significant number of the American delegates due to arrive were women, and at that time there was no organisation capable of organising the welcome for such women.

From such a relatively pragmatic beginning, WACL has grown in size, influence and status to the organisation it is today. (WACL)1
It would appear that Magenta's not exactly proposing anything revolutionary when she argues that women should be making their way "into (non-secretarial) roles within the advertising industry" (WACL). Another aspect of her confrontation with Quinn also seems to overlook some of the realities of advertising in the 1960s. Magenta argues that
'[...] we must consider our female audience when we design a campaign.'
'What do women want?' Quinn didn't even pretend to think about it. 'Who cares when men pay the bills? This is business, Magenta, not some feel-good society for you to float around in. Men earn the money women spend - remember that. So men are our target audience.' [...]
'But you've just admitted women do the shopping, so they have control of the finances.'
'Nonsense. Are you the most argumentative woman I've ever met?' he demanded. 'Who tells a woman what to buy, Magenta? Her man.' (59-60)
One does have to make some allowances for the fact that Magenta's 1960s is a "sixties dreamworld" but it would appear that "sixties dreamworld" Quinn is out of touch with real 1960s advertising trends. In the real 1960s one of the books Mills & Boon published was Nan Berger and Joan Maizels's Woman Fancy or Free?, a non-fiction work which includes a chapter which focuses on advertising. They observed that
A vast and complex industry has been built up in order to persuade people to buy. Since women are the largest buyers; the "new rich"; "the biggest consumer field"; the "dominant and supreme economic force"; they occupy a "key role in the economy". To the manufacturers of consumer goods and their collaborators in advertising, women now represent a source of meal tickets on an unprecedented scale of luxury. This is why they are ceaselessly wooed and courted with a ruthless passion which leaves nothing to chance.
In order to attract women to buy one brand of consumer goods rather than another, they are subjected to a campaign of enticement directed as much to their reason as to their emotions. (48)
Rather than lament a lack of advertising aimed at women, Berger and Maizels lament the quantity, and critique the content, of the adverts the industry targeted at women consumers. They conclude that
the appeal which the major consumer industries make to women reveals that it is based on fostering the belief that in spite of all the opportunities which are open to them, none will be as satisfying as the use of their domestic skills and their sexual charms. In an age of specialisation women are being encouraged to specialise in being women. By the persuasive euphemisms of modern advertising, they are encouraged to adjust their lives to accord with the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be. (19)
Here's an example of the sort of advertising they were thinking of:
Gravy is a girl's best friend. Men always seem to go for gravy - and for the girls who know how to make gravy taste rich and meaty ... it gives a meal man appeal.
Based on the old adage that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, this advertisement does more than make extravagant claims for the product it projects. It assumes that woman's interest in the product will be heightened by the spurious addition of sex-appeal. (34)
Magenta's advertising campaign relies on reverse sexism: "The general theme was irony, suggesting men must be catered for and even spoiled a little so that women were free to do their own thing" (115). Given this message, it's possible that the "Vivid, graphic imagery and clever text" (115) includes some "spurious [...] sex-appeal" (Berger and Maizels 34).

We can, however, be certain of the contents of the real adverts for products from the 1960s which are mentioned in the novel. These include the Concentrate girdle and Little Fibber bra (34). Here's the advert for them:
Under the image of a pear and the headline "This is no shape for a girl," the reader is told that
That's why Warner's makes the Concentrate girdle and the Little Fibber bra.
Girls with too much bottom and too little top: Warner's can reshape you.
It's an image, and copy, which quite clearly encourages women "to adjust their lives to accord with the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be."

Another of the authentic 1960s products mentioned in Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby was aimed at men:
Standing up, Quinn propped one hip against the desk, managing to look both formidable and desirable at the same time. [...]
Half-man, half-beast - all male ... The shout line on a sixties massage-cologne rushed into Magenta's mind. The thought of massaging it into Quinn was quickly stifled. (55)
And here's the original advert, apparently from 1967. It reads:
Are you ready for Centaur?

Out of the Wild and Violent days of ancient Greece comes the exciting concept of a Massage-Cologne ... its name is CENTAUR!
CENTAUR adds a delightful new dimension to your body, a low level aroma that hovers close to the skin for hours, transmits its virile message only in moments of close and intimate contact.
CENTAUR makes no coy promises ... finding HER is up to you ... then CENTAUR gives her the message. She won't say "What are you wearing?" She will say "You smell good!"
The advertisers are at least honest when they admit that the nubile female masseuse is not provided with the cologne, but her appearance is a realistic representation of neither ancient Greek nor 1960s women. Given her role and her scanty clothing, it would appear that once again an advert is depicting a masculine fantasy of what "women ought to do and to be."

The 1960s was also the decade when Jean Kilbourne began to take a look at "the ad-men's conception of what women ought to do and to be" (Berger and Maizels 19):
In 1968 she had begun collecting magazine ads that, in one way or another, demeaned women, eventually turning these into slides to illustrate lectures she delivered inside and outside schools on the evils of advertising. [...] In 1979 she turned this show-and-tell exercise into a half-hour documentary entitled Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women. (Rutherford 149)
In Ruthless Boss, Dream Baby, Magenta muses that
It was nothing short of a miracle that women had found the energy to prove themselves in the sixties [...]. And on top of that they were expected to run a home.
So what had changed? Magenta wondered wryly. Things were pretty much the same in the twenty-first century. (70)
In some ways advertising has changed a great deal; BoredPanda.com's list of "25 vintage ads that would be banned today" is proof of that despite the fact that it includes some adverts which must have been created some time before the 1960s. However, in other ways it's possible that advertising hasn't changed so much after all. It may be that twenty-first century adverts are as likely to be "heightened by the spurious addition of sex-appeal" (Berger and Maizels 34) as those from the 1960s. In the fourth, updated, edition of Jean Kilbourne's documentary, which was released in 2010, she comments that
Sometimes people say to me, “You’ve been talking about this for 40 years, have things gotten any better?” And actually I have to say really they’ve gotten worse. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success and perhaps most important – normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.

Well what does advertising tell us about women? It tells us, as it always has, that’s what’s most important is how we look. So the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with images of ideal female beauty. Women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and above all money, striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute flawlessness. (full transcript of the trailer here)


1 There had been an earlier organisation, based in London, for women in advertising:
Association of Advertising Women
This organisation was set up in 1910 to bring together, for mutual aid and social enjoyment, women workers actively engaged in advertising work. By this time there were many employed as copywriters, artists and designers and 'canvassers' selling advertising space. In 1916 its headquarters were at 154 Clerkenwell Road, London, and its president was Miss Ethel M. Sayer. Subscriptions were two guineas and one guinea according to status. It had disappeared by the end of the First World War. (Gordon and Doughan 17)


  1. I remember seeing the original Killing us Softly and really being stunned that what I had felt unconsciously was shaped so consciously.

  2. "was shaped so consciously"

    By coincidence, I just came across an interesting article published in the Association for Consumer Research's Advances in Consumer Research in which it's suggested that advertisers could learn important lessons from the romance genre. It should be noted that since the article dates from 1991, its summary of the depiction of sexuality in the genre is out-of-date.

    Anyway, in the article Barbara B. Stern suggests that

    An understanding of romances as soft-core pornography appealing to women can assist the creation of advertising appeals that attract rather than alienate target markets. The creation of more accurately-targeted sexual appeals depends on sensitivity to differences between male and female sexual fantasies. Failure to recognize such differences can result in portrayals likely to alienate the very consumers they are designed to attract. This is a special danger when products are much more likely to be bought by one sex than the other, for if the target sex is turned off, who is left to buy the product?

    She concludes, however, that

    The most important issue may not be how to use our understanding of what different segments view as pornography to encourage construction of better advertisements, but whether we should be doing this at all. More socially responsible advertisements that treat male and female sexuality with respect may best be achieved by decreasing the emphasis on sex rather than by getting it precisely right. Warmth, joy, love, and intimacy may be a more attractive set of appeals to all humans rather than violent hard-core or romantic soft-core depictions aimed at one sex or the other. The goal of humanization in advertising depends on a willingness to create messages that dignify the whole person rather than relying on those that reduce consumers of both sexes to no more than their sexual parts.

    Stern, Barbara B. "Two Pornographies: A Feminist View of Sex in Advertising." Advances in Consumer Research 18. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1991. 384-391.

  3. While I would be the first to agree that there were huge social changes in the 1960s (I was in my 20s in that decade), my eyebrows rose a bit at some of the ideas that seem to be in the book. I think I'd have to read it to judge how close to (or far from) reality the author's 'dream' 60s are, but I can point out that I started work in my own profession in 1962, immediately after getting my first degree and was never, throughout my career, treated as a second-class employee.

    On the question of women in advertising, remember that Dorothy L. Sayers worked as a copywriter in an important London agency from 1922-1931, and is credited with some memorable adverts, e.g. the classic 'Guinness is good for you'. The atmosphere of a 1920s advertising agency is brought vividly to life in Murder must advertise (1933).

  4. "I think I'd have to read it to judge how close to (or far from) reality the author's 'dream' 60s are"

    It seems as though Magenta has paid a lot of attention to 60s fashions (as one would expect, given that she's working on a retro advertising campaign) but she does seem rather less knowledgeable about other aspects of the period. It would be hypocritical of me to judge her negatively for that; reading the book and then doing the research for this post made me realise how little I know about the 60s. I'm a bit older than Magenta, but I hadn't been born in the 1960s, I was still very young at the beginning of the 1980s, and when I was at secondary school, we spent several years covering the lead up to the First World War, the War itself and then the interwar period.

    What I found interesting about the depiction of the "dream" 1960s in this book was the author's choice to focus on sexism against women workers, and on the disregard of women consumers (which seems to be historically inaccurate), rather than on sexism in the way adverts depicted women and/or addressed women. It does make sense from the point of view of the story, of course: it means Magenta can stand up to and "tame" the alpha male by showing him her talent and the need to take into account women's preferences (and by extension her own). However, this doesn't involve much growth on her part. Pretty much all she learns at an emotional level from her trip to the 60s is that (a) sex with Quinn is enjoyable and (b) she would like to have a baby with Quinn. If her exposure to 1960s advertising had made her come back from the dreamworld questioning the sexism in 21st century advertising, that could have made for a really intriguing character arc, but it would have been a very different story, and perhaps more chick lit than romance.

    remember that Dorothy L. Sayers worked as a copywriter in an important London agency from 1922-1931, and is credited with some memorable adverts, e.g. the classic 'Guinness is good for you'.

    I didn't know that!

  5. I might look out for this and read it, Laura. Admittedly I spent three years of the 1960s (1964-67) living in Germany, where things were not quite the same as they were in the UK, but my memory of both cultures in that decade are very vivid indeed. Certainly there was sexism aplenty in many different guises, but there was also a widespread and voracious appetite for change, a willingness to do things in new and different, sometimes formerly scandalous, ways, which actually provided numerous opportunities for those who wished to take them.

    The 1950s advertising that targeted women as domestic goddesses (wonderful new labour-saving kitchen appliances etc.) were in part an attempt to tempt back out of the workplace and into the home the many women who had been doing 'men's jobs' during the War, and had acquired the taste for them and for greater variety and independence they offered. But that social phase was already over by the early 1960s.

  6. Killing Us Softly is what "turned" me into a feminist in college. It literally changed my life.

  7. I might look out for this and read it, Laura.

    If you do, I'd be interested in your opinion of its depiction of the "dream" 60s and how they compare to the real 60s.

    Killing Us Softly is what "turned" me into a feminist in college.

    So Killing Us Softly "turned" you. Hmm. Sounds like Pat Robertson could have ended his statement about how feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians" with "and turn into vampires."