Feminist brands need to be conscious and proactive

Gooding: Feminist brands need to be conscious and proactive

Brands operate in the real and online worlds, and how they choose to represent and portray women and who they associate their values with is very telling.

It’s certainly been a summer of two halves for gender equality. On the one hand we can celebrate the incredible performance of the England Lionesses and its impact on women’s football, as well as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie becoming the highest grossing film of 2023 and the highest grossing film by a solo female director.

Whilst in the very same industries, we have witnessed ‘Kissgate’ and the subsequent resignation of Luis Rubiales and, closer to home, TV and movie celebrity Russell Brand stands accused of sexual assault.

It is to be celebrated that so many men now feel able to enjoy the work and performances of the Lionesses and Barbie as much as women do. Even more heartening is the multitude of men who have been quick to express their shock and dismay at the sexist, misogynistic and inappropriate behaviour of Rubiales and Brand.

And for those who say we shouldn’t have ‘trial by media’, all I would say is that there has always been a ‘Court of Public Opinion’, and we are all perfectly justified in forming a view based on information and video evidence that sits in plain sight.

Brands are rightly distancing themselves

Two brands that went up hugely in my estimation are Google and YouTube. Acting quickly to switch off any opportunity for Russell Brand to benefit financially from the extraordinary increase of traffic to his video posts driven by his fall from grace.

I can well imagine the ‘free speech brigade’ who put the counter arguments behind the scenes. Views that sadly won through at Rumble, who continue to allow him to benefit from any spike in income that results from his increased notoriety.

Most bizarre of all was Elon Musk posting his irritation that Brand had chosen to post on Rumble, rather than X. If that doesn’t lay bare that it’s more about the money, than the principle of free speech, I don’t know what does.

If I was still group brand director at Aviva, I would be seeking assurances from our media agency that none of my ads were appearing on Russell Brand’s channel anywhere. We can no longer rely on the principle that advertisers just target a defined audience and distance themselves from editorial decisions. The onus is firmly on us to be thoughtful about where we place our ads online and avoid brands (excuse the pun) with values contrary to our own.

I understand that there are risks to any social media platform every time they interfere with their established model of platforming user-generated content whilst adopting a neutral stance. Getting involved implies editorial control more typical of the behaviour of a publisher, which is a description they are keen to avoid.

That makes the actions of Google and YouTube is even more significant. Their decision to suspend any advertising on Brand’s channel had nothing to do with its content, but rather the harm caused by the creator in the real world. An interesting distinction.

For too long we have been treating social media as another country, with contributors operating in ways that would not be tolerated within regulated traditional media. I am glad we are increasingly joining up the dots.

No avoiding the leadership call

Every brand needs to know and rehearse the red lines on behaviour, as well as speech, within its operational ecosystem. These moments in the public eye are important proof points.

When ‘doing the right thing’ becomes a reality, or not. The extent to which they lead, reflect, or follow public opinion has always represented an opportunity for brands.

I understand that Google and YouTube have policies and guidelines to help navigate through these sorts of issues. But we all know that whilst those will help, the final call is going to come from the leadership.

It says something about the character and conviction of the people at the top of those companies that they moved so quickly and decisively.

The role of brands in changing expectations of women

As gender equality stories play out constantly in headline news, brand owners cannot escape taking a position. Obviously its easier to take a stand on matters the law has already defined as illegal, like rape and sexual assault.

More problematic are broader societal attitudes relating to progressive feminist sentiments. The emergence of movements like ‘Me Too,’ and political focus on subjects like gender pay gap reporting, has certainly provoked a reaction from those who think ‘things have gone too far.

A case in point is the emergence of Andrew Tate. An influential proponent of misogyny who according to videos posted online believes women belong in the home, can’t drive, and are a man’s property. He also thinks rape victims must ‘bear responsibility’ for their attacks and dates women aged 18–19 because he can ‘make an imprint’ on them.

Savanta’s Youth Omnibus, a monthly tracker of 16–25-year-olds, reveals that one in three (32%) young men say they have a positive view of Tate, compared to just one in 11 (9%) of young women. So, whilst the sexes have quite a different take on him, we have to take notice of such a large proportion of young men aligning themselves with his views.

Misogyny online has an impact in the real world

We can now see evidence of how this is playing through into wider attitudes towards women. I was dismayed to see the findings from a recent Effie Report ‘A woman’s worth’ published in August this year which draws on IPSOS Global Trends 2023 Report. It shows that a third of Britons increasingly believe that a woman’s primary role is to be a good wife and mother.

A number which is up from 23% of GB adults in 2013 to 29%, and which from my perspective is a trend that is going in the wrong direction. More striking is the finding that younger people believe it even more strongly, up from 24% to 38% amongst 16- to 24-year-olds in the last decade. A number that is nearly three times higher than my generation of 55- to 74-year-olds.

The report speculates that the drivers influencing social stereotypes, in addition to Tate’s rise to prominence, are factors like the portrayal of women in marketing. Power dynamics are still perpetuated in advertising with the common use of imagery showing men in control of important financial decisions whilst women counted the pennies.

Women still dominate in ads relating to domestic chores, and 58% of women featured in ads occupied traditional roles. Analysis of Cannes Lion films between 2006-2021 is more encouraging, with women representing just 34% of characters in 2006 now reaching near parity at 48%, albeit still displaying less autonomy than male characters.

So where does this leave brands who operate in the real world, and yet fund so much of the online world? My hope is that they will be even more conscious, and proactive, in their progressive feminist stance.

Not only challenging the representation and portrayal of women in their own marketing assets, but also using their considerable media influence to ensure they are not unwittingly funding misogyny or encouraging the oppression of women in other places.

Particularly those brands who are reaching 16–24-year-olds and can choose to be associated with the values of Marcus Rashford, Harry Styles, Tom Daley and Stormzy rather than Andrew Tate, Russell Brand or Luis Rubiales. Men who don’t define their masculinity by restricting women to traditional and subservient roles.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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