Women In History Who Shaped Modern Advertising


Advertising's Forgotten Trailblazers

March is Women’s History Month, dedicated to celebrating the achievements and recognizing the contributions women have made throughout history. The marketing and advertising industries are areas of society where women had to create their own paths. Due to discrimination and inequality, it’s been a challenge for women to gain a foothold.

For decades, advertising flourished by portraying women as adornments and sex objects without offering viable opportunities for women seeking careers in the marketing industry. Recall the struggles of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson as she ascended her way to copy chief in an industry where women had long been dismissed and degraded.

However, nearly 50 years before Olson’s heyday, the foundation of modern advertising was laid in the 1910s and ’20s by a group of pioneering female copywriters in the J. Walter Thompson Co. “Women’s Editorial Department” led by Helen Lansdowne Resor. These women “pushed cultural boundaries and rejected antiquated standards for consumerism.”

Helen Lansdowne Resor; First female creative director
Helen Lansdowne Resor; First female creative director

How Women Were Typically Portrayed and Marketed To In Ads

Throughout history, advertising has portrayed women in very limiting roles. With few exceptions, women were wittingly placed in the domestic realm as the family nurturer, talking enthusiastically about laundry, housework, and cooking — striving to please, supportive of others, and concerned with emotional well-being. Advertisers displayed images showing wives deferring to their husbands in financial matters as well as decision-making regarding children. Naturally, there was also the female sex object.

Resor and her Women’s Editorial Department team disregarded the Victorian ideas of femininity that discouraged women from the traditional male pursuits of sports, entertainment, or work outside the home – virtually anything that wasn’t cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing.

Pond's Cold Cream Ad. "Distinguished women were interviewed and asked to endorse the product.
Pond's Cold Cream Ad. "Distinguished women were interviewed and asked to endorse the product.

The Women’s Editorial Department’s ads moved the ideal woman firmly outside that realm. A modernized Pond’s Vanishing Cream ad showed a woman golfing with her sleeves rolled up. The copy read, “The Out-of-Doors Girl can easily avoid the unpleasant effects of sun and wind on her delicate skin.” Other portrayals showed women playing tennis, riding bikes, and attending upscale parties. Resor’s modern woman was much more than a housewife.

The Attempts to Broaden the Representation of Women

Frances Maule began her career as a newspaper reporter in Denver and Chicago and became an influential copywriter and editor of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York. As a veteran of the suffrage movement, she was tired of traditional advertisements and their “good old conventional angel-idiot conception of women.”

Robert Cameron Beadle, Alfred H. Brown and Frances Maule Bjorkman on August 26, 1913
Robert Cameron Beadle, Alfred H. Brown and Frances Maule Bjorkman on August 26, 1913

Maule worked as a copywriter for the J. Walter Thompson company from 1920 to 1929 and made it her mission to broaden women’s representation. However, that broadening had its limits.

The Women’s Editorial Department was mostly white, well-educated, middle and upper-class workers, many of whom had earned degrees from elite colleges. Their average wage was 15 percent more than the average female college graduate at the time. And the ads created by the Women’s Editorial Department reflected their creators’ backgrounds.

The women in the ads were always white, usually upper-class, images to which the women thought their viewers would aspire. In her attempt to diversify women’s representation in advertising, Maule fell short, creating just four “types” of women: the society woman, the working woman, the club woman, and the housewife. They helped develop a standard of beauty — white, wealthy, and flawless — that still exists today.

How Marketing to Women Has Evolved

Fast-forward 90 years. Today we see some efforts to portray women as multi-dimensional and more empowered. American Eagle’s intimate line, Aerie, launched their #AerieReal campaign of un-retouched photos 7 years ago promoting women of various body types and abilities, and have been highly successful ever since. There was also Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, encouraging young girls to embrace failure, try new things, and keep going. More and more initiatives like these are becoming mainstream.

Obviously, marketing to women has evolved drastically over time, and we might even assume that it has improved. However, marketers need to take a more in-depth look because we may not understand the female market as well as we think.

A marketing persona should never simply be “A Woman” with no descriptive adjectives. Women are not a homogeneous group, and you can’t just target the singular female demographic. Just like men, numerous women personas respond to many different concepts.

Modern consumers are changing the effectiveness of gendered marketing. Younger generations, in particular, seek brand experiences that are inclusive toward people of all gender identities and don’t assume their preferences based on stereotypes.

Kate Snyder, strategist and head of anthropology at Instant Grass International, a consumer insights and research firm based in Cape Town, South Africa, says this about gendered marketing

“We’re in the midst of a powerful cultural movement, one in which people are beginning to embrace the fluidity of gender and that the way we identify and express ourselves doesn’t have to strictly fall under masculine and feminine stereotypes. Brands should be mirroring and representing this shift to stay with the times.”

Current Challenges of Women in Marketing

In 2014, The 3% Conference showed that only 11% of women are creative directors — an improvement over the 3% statistic for which the conference was named in 2010. Despite decades of work for gender-neutrality and treatment in the workplace, differences persist.

Research and data from the US Census, Pew Research, and Catalyst indicate the two biggest reasons women in marketing face career challenges include:

  • Lack of salary and job negotiation because women tend to negotiate their starting salary or raises less, contributing to the wage gap in higher-paying jobs.
  • Lack of pay transparency, discrimination, and bias.

Often this discrimination is subtle. Consequently, women may not realize that they should speak out. For example, working women face gender discrimination twice as frequently as men or 42% of women versus 22% of men (Pew Research).

In 2021, we’re getting better, but there’s always room for improvement. If you’re looking for inspiration during this year’s Women’s History Month, check out Instagram’s video series TogetHER and advice from 12 of the most accomplished women in advertising during 2020’s celebration.

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