Give the model some wit. Said no-one ever.

“Can’t think of any ads that show women being funny,” said Donna Brookbanks.

The local comedian and writer for Funny Girls shrugged. Fellow comedian, and Sunday Star Times columnist, Alice Sneddon agreed, “Nope, I can’t think of any either. But I am ready and willing, I’ll endorse anything for money!”

I’d asked them because some clanging statistics came out of Cannes not long ago. Unilever conducted a two-year worldwide survey and found only two percent of ads showed women as intelligent, three percent in managerial positions and only one percent being funny.

Admittedly, these are global stats but even if there’s a zero behind those numbers for New Zealand—and that’s being generous, we don’t know what they are—they’re not making anyone laugh. Alarmed at the time, I wrote to Conferenz suggesting a talk to the marketing crowd about stereotypes and seemingly harmless images—they’re just ads, right? I quoted Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “Media’s 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.”

Conferenz said thanks, but nobody had requested that subject. I told them I’d make it amusing! But still, they said no. They wondered if I could do a talk about soft drinks having ethics. Somebody had requested that.

Jean Kilbourne, creator of the 1979 doc  investigating females in advertising, Killing Us Softly, said: “Ads sell more than products… they tell us who we are and who we should be.” Nearly 40 years on, that’s still true. It’s what makes advertising such a seductive industry. But back in the 1970s, when women were eschewing casserole dishes for careers, Kilbourne had good reason to be concerned about the objectification of women.

We’ve all evolved since then.

Which is why those stats are so shocking. The ‘one percent funny’ is the saddest. And baffling. ‘Funny female comedian’ may have been an oxymoron 100 years ago but not now. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel TV series, about a female stand up, cleaned up at the Golden Globes this year. Four out of five nominees for the 2018 Billy T Awards are females: Laura Daniel, Alice Sneddon, Donna Brookbanks and Melanie Bracewell.

Comedian and columnist Michelle A’Court said she didn’t know of any women colleagues getting commercial work but, “a fair few male colleagues do”. “I don’t see the ads, but I hear about their paychecks.” She went on, “This is probably to do with my age – you need young women to sell things.”

Oh yes, young, but not smart or funny.

Still curious, I asked Erin McKenzie, editor of this magazine and StopPress, who probably sees more ads than anyone, to think of any showing funny females. “Hmm, so bad I struggled to think of any!” she said, before coming back with three: Rachel House’s [Hunt For The Wilderpeople] ‘True Rewarden’ for ASB, Flick Electric’s brand campaign, and New Zealand Police’s recruitment campaign, ‘Freeze’. Digging behind the scenes, I discovered that in the making of the ads, all three had females in managerial or lead roles. Rachel House also directed ‘True Rewarden’. Brand manager, Jessica Venning-Bryan, was behind Flick’s campaigns. And Ogilvy & Mather’s group creative director on ‘Freeze’ was Lisa Fedyszyn.

This is progress. Funny or clever ads with smart women in leadership roles behind them!

The best ad we’ve seen with a funny female lead was not an ad. Rose Matafeo made a spoof Holden ad for Funny Girls. After the usual quick cuts between landscape shots to details of the vehicle, Rose gets out of the car, clad in flannel. “Sorry love, didn’t expect to see a woman, you don’t usually see them in these types of ads,” says the male narrator who goes on to ask Matafeo if she “inherited her farm, and ute, off her dead husband?”.

When Holden was asked if they would ever make an ad like the Funny Girls clip, Ed Finn, general manager of corporate affairs, said the idea was “a bit niche”.

A woman driving is not niche; we’re not Saudi Arabia. Or perhaps, to be fair, he meant the funny part. Showing funny females in ads is less than niche. It’s rare.

But if females aren’t being funny, smart or leaders, then what are they doing?

Take a recent Billabong campaign. While he’s having the time of his life— you can’t see his shorts but who cares when he’s taken air—she’s not even reading a magazine. Who sits on the beach like that unless they’ve been stung by a jellyfish?

He’s doing. She’s posing. Magazine covers do this often. For girls it’s all about the hair, for boys it’s all about cracking that dream to become an astronaut. Even in health, for women it’s about how you look and for men, it’s about how big is your bacon sandwich? I’m no health expert but neither subject has anything to do with health unless you feed the bacon sandwich through those holes in your togs instead of eating it.

While it may feel like there are bigger issues to solve, if the majority of ads show women as something to look at, that’s a problem.

Find a teenage girl who hasn’t wondered whether a selfie got enough likes and you’ve found a rare, special thing. Girls are concerned about looks at an increasingly younger age. Eight-year-olds complain they’re too fat, freckly, short, tall, pale, dark. And it’s not just youth. Women aren’t less preoccupied with their looks than 50 years ago. Just peek inside any Botox salon’s calendar. The beauty industry’s bigger than the education industry—and that doesn’t include fashion—so while it may seem harmless having a young, beautiful woman lounging across an ad, if most ads have women not doing anything other than looking good, it’s not doing anyone any favours.

No matter what ad blockers you’ve got, kids are watching YouTube, which educates girls that writing their name in the air with their butts is the way to get likes. And they’re at the mall with gigantic posters showing women looking (often off into the distance with a slightly gaping mouth) at nothing, saying nothing. Just looking good. And they’re on social media—kids are on Instagram at 11/12 and the same messages in advertising are coming at them.

Shirley Manson, from the band Garbage, told 7.30 in the UK, there’s so much pressure on young women to post a photograph on social media and have people go ‘wow, you’re beautiful’. “Unfortunately, it’s such an empty pursuit because there’ll always be another beautiful woman to follow. Young women need to shift their focus from looks to creating a foundation. Nobody stays  young and beautiful forever so build a platform to carry yourself through storms – music, writing, comedy, sport, art.”

I like looking at beautiful women. We all do. But I like hearing a beautiful woman slam dunk a good line even more. If ads are showing us who we should be then let’s show women, and men, who women really are and smash those stats up.

We can all do our bit. Copywriters, directors, clients, managers, designers and even the good people at Conferenz. And it doesn’t have to be just women making ads showing women being funny. Men, you’re funny. And in leadership roles! You can feel like equals in this game too.

Because one or even ten percent isn’t funny.

  • Angela Barnett is a writer and brand muse, and the founder of Pretty Smart talks for teens. 

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