Out of chaos comes order: Angela Barnett rallies for adland to move beyond Kevin Roberts

Like many women who used to work at Saatchi & Saatchi, I have conflicting thoughts and emotions on the subject of what Kevin Roberts said last week. I’m disappointed gender bias still exists and what’s worse it seems largely unconscious. (Anyone in doubt then watch this clip by Professor Shelley Cornell). I’m saddened that there seems to be, for the most part, two sides to the ring: his and hers. And I’m also hopeful because change always comes from friction, even issues as fractious as this.

If I saw Kevin right now I’d give him a sharp prod followed by a tequila shot, as he probably needs one. Yes, he should have known better. Yes, he said words he can never take back. And he’s gone but not forgotten. But this is not about Kevin.

I’d prefer to take my inspiration from Michelle Obama, who, in her magnificent democratic speech, turned everyone’s heads away from a white man with too many opinions to what’s important: the next generation.

KPMG did a global study of leadership with 3,000 women and concluded young girls need three things to become leaders: confidence, connections and role models. In the research they found only one third of women were taught to share their point of view when growing up.  

Another fact that needs some attention is this clanging one that came out of Cannes this year. Unilever did a global two-year study and found only two percent of ads show women as intelligent, three percent had women in managerial roles or higher, and only one percent showed women as being funny. 

“The media and advertising specifically have been slow to reflect the changing shape of gender identity and often depict, at best, a current view of society, and sometimes a backward view.” said Unilever.

No wonder we still have unconscious gender bias if the messages seen in malls and magazines and online—right next to all the click bait discussing the size of celebrities’ backsides—do not show women as smart, capable of leadership, or funny.

We see a lot of women staring off into another dimension, looking both desirable and unattainable. We don’t see enough women being shit-kickers and sharing their point of view, especially from global brands, who have deep pockets for wide-reaching influence.

Only one percent of ads show women as funny? I’ve got three things to say to that: Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer and Angela Barnes. And that’s just the beginning of the alphabet. What about Alice Sneddon, Beth Stelling, Betty White, Brynley Stent, Carmen Lynch, Carol Burnett, Chelsey Handler, Dawn French, Donna Brookbanks, Dulcé Sloan, Ellie Kemper, Ellen DeGeneres, Emmy Blotnick, Fortune Feimster, Gina Rodriguez, Hattie Hayridge, Jackie van Beek, Jacqueline Novak, Janeane Garofalo, Jennifer Saunders, Joan Rivers, Joanna Lumley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Justine Smith, Kate McKinnon, Kathy Griffin, Kim Crossman, Kristen Schaal, Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Leslie Jones, Louise-Beuvink, Lisa Lampanelli, Liza Treyger, Lucille Ball, Margaret Cho, Megan Gailey, Melissa McCarthy, Michelle A’Court, Michelle Wolf, Mindy Kahling, Nikki Glaser, Natasha Leggero, Pamela Stephenson, Phyllis Diller, Rebel Wilson, Roseanne Barr, Rose Matafeo, Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman, Sarah Millican, Sasheer Zamata, Tina Fey, Torum Heng, Urzila Carlson, Wanka Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg, Whitney Cummings, Zooey Deschanel and Zoe Rogers. I’m sure if I kept digging I could find female comedians for i, x and y. At the Billy T Comedy Awards this year two out of five finalists were women: Laura Daniells and Alice Brine.

If the media is meant to reflect reality then it’s seriously behind reality when it comes to depicting women as funny.

Only two percent of ads show women as intelligent? We don’t need to debate women’s intelligence; it’s not the middle ages.

Only three percent of ads show women in managerial roles or higher? Cindy Gallop told RNZ that women burn with just as much ambition as men, and it starts from a young age. Ask any class of five-year-olds what they want to be and the sky’s the limit for both genders from rabbit breeder to astronaut. My daughter, at seven, wants to be a teacher but if she ever manages to look at a magazine, all she usually sees in the advertising is women being pretty. Being pretty is not a job.

We have to break old habits of using stereotypes.

If we want to change perceptions, thoughts and actions around gender bias in society, across industries, then let’s change what we see in the messaging projected at boys and girls, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers.

As Nikki Bell told StopPress last year: “Women are making more than 75 percent of the purchase decisions around the world…. [therefore]“We are marketing on the whole to women. And 91 percent of women feel like advertising doesn’t reflect who they really are.” 

When I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington it was a highly charged, creative environment. Everyone was required to be better than their best and bend rules, male or female. But above all, the thing we were all aiming to achieve was to communicate messages that tapped into the human psyche. That’s what good advertising does. It rises above the rabble, connects people and taps into the zeitgeist (oh and sells products as well). The good ideas move people. They shift our thinking like this Always ad.

Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media told the Guardian, “Media is the only business industry when we can literally paint a picture of the world the way we want it to be. One 30-second spot can make a lifetime impression”.

Here’s my challenge to the industry: let’s smash those statistics and have more women being intelligent in the images we see. And funny. And doing interesting things, not staring vacuously out, selling that face cream (that no matter how much you put on will not make you younger or smarter or a better leader).

Advertising is a powerful creator of cultural messages and expectations so if we want change, then let’s change what the industry projects.

Ben Fahy said at the Cointreau Creative Kickstarter for women last week that, “Media should reflect reality, but sometimes it should also influence reality.”

I propose a round table is set up. On it sit a mix of men and women, like Bridget Taylor from Contagion, James Hurman, who’s next book could do with having some females in it, Kate Smith ex Saatchi & Saatchi, two graduates (male and female) fresh from ad school, Dr Jane Cherrington from The Briefing, Damien Venuto from Tangible Media, Nick Worthington’s son, who’s recently graduated, plus Tara Lorigan from Co of Women, Nikki Bell, ex Saatchi & Saatchi CEO and Paul Head from CAANZ.

Let’s get a comedian too like Urzila Carlson, who started off in advertising. And Lizzie Marvelly. Plus we need some editors at the table who are prepared to challenge their advertisers to raise their standards.

Change comes from small micro steps. Let’s see some ideas that don’t add to the problem of girls’ confidence and aspirations to lead, but help fix it. Ideas that show more women speaking up, sharing their opinion.

Let’s challenge the industry to be better than their best and kick those statistics up, at least, into double digits.  

As Michelle Obama said: “We’re in this together. Because these girls are our girls. They are us. They each have the spark of something extraordinary inside of them just like our daughters – and our sons – and their fate is very much our responsibility.”

So, ad industry, are you up for the challenge?

  • Angela Barnett is the founder of FABIK (Fucking Awesome Bulimics I Know), read more about FABIK here.

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