Advertising stereotypes: From the kitchen to first class
A high-flying female executive takes centre stage in BA's latest advertising campaign. It's a far cry from the soap powder commercials of yesteryear. Cahal Milmo charts the journey
17 June 2005
As far as advertisers were concerned, there was only one issue that could rightly obsess 1950s women. One jingle put the matter succinctly: "Brightness, brightness, brightness, women want brightness."
The brightness in question, of course, was that achieved by a household's whites after a session in the twin-tub. With the gloom of the immediate post-war period blossoming into the full flush of consumerism, advertising stuck resolutely to the traditional image of the domestic goddess.
From the rictus grins of housewives, issuing paeans of praise to their washing powders, to pinny-wearing mothers caressing the very latest in formica-clad furniture, the first television adverts aimed at women revolved around her sacred trinity: home, husband and respectability.
Peter York, the author and historian, says: "There was an assumption that no woman could be interested in a career or a job.
"Instead, the messages were aimed at products which would allow the woman to maintain her house, her husband and family, and her appearance.
"The underlying philosophy was one of seemliness. It was about being the right consort and the way in which the products would allow them to achieve that."
By the late 1950s, marketing departments began to detect a shift in consumer buying power and had begun to target teenagers, pushing a more hedonistic set of tastes - from music to fizzy drinks.
But in the meantime, mainstream advertising continued to appeal to the mistress of the house, safe in her spotless kitchen. As another jingle ran: "Wait! Watch it! Here comes the steam/ It's the Hotpoint Hi-Speed kettle/ It's the fastest boiling kettle you can buy."
Contrary to the industry's self-image as pushing back social boundaries with daring forays into the moral grey zone, advertising often reinforces stereotypes.
Despite lengthening hair, cries of revolution and wafts of marijuana, almost all adverts aimed at women in the 1960s continued to plug domestic appliances and cosmetics such as Avon.
After a post-war peak in the divorce rate between 1946 and 1950, failed marriages fell by a quarter in the early 1960s and the age of first marriage for women fell through the decade to 22.5 years.
A study of the era's television adverts found that in 86 per cent of appearances by women they were shown as users of a product but in only 14 per cent were they used as the "authority", the voiceover where the product is actually sold.
But more daring advertising was emerging with women as sexual objects capable even of enjoying sex. Leading the trend was the team behind a new Cadbury chocolate bar for women. Although tame by the standards of some of its orally fixated successors, the early Flake adverts made no secret of phallic imagery.
Tony Bilsborough, of Cadbury, said: "The adverts carried the slogan 'A moment of conscious abandon', and were meant to appeal to women as a time when they could just forget everything. The ads were made to be sensual and not deliberately sexual because they had to play all day on the television and couldn't be too risqué."
With the 1970s came the beginning of a steady rise in the number of working women and their increasing value to advertisers with their pay cheques.
Between 1970 and 1979, the proportion of women with jobs rose from 48 per cent to 65 per cent. But pervading sexual discrimination meant female earnings were only 63 per cent those of men.
In New York the cosmetics giant Revlon moved quickly to boost sales of its Charlie perfume. Portrayed as the scent women could buy for themselves - rather than wait for a gift from a man, presumably - the most famous Charlie Girl was Shelley Hack, the model who went on to star in Charlie's Angels.
Her relaxed look, flicked hair and casual trousers were meant to show a woman at ease with herself at work and at play, though still concerned with her appearance. Revlon ran with the theme, changing the character into a sassy New Yorker. Soon, Britain's television screens were being bombarded with images of the new, independent "Charlie Girl" who pinches her male underling's backside and rides with cowboys. At the campaign's peak in the 1980s, Charlie put her hand on a man's bottom.
James Twitchell, an advertising specialist at Florida University, said: "The Charlie Girl advert showed the woman was in control. She was taller than the man, she had her hand on his butt and she is carrying an attaché case. Not only is she going to work, but the man is probably working for her. It said if you wore this elevator-emptying perfume you were not just a woman but THE woman."
1980s: VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
With the era of shoulder pads and prime ministerial handbags came a new type of adland female - the independent but also increasingly ruthless woman.
That was epitomised in the 1984 advertisement that Volkswagen broadcast to boost sales of its Golf, featuring the model Paula Hamilton.
Viewers watched rapt as the jilted woman sheds her pearls, diamonds and mink coat before stepping back from throwing the keys to her car. The voiceover said: "If only everything in life was as reliable as a Golf."
Peter Clay, the advertising account executive for VW, said: "Our storyline was designed to reflect women's independence. Women find men unreliable, they can be let down in their relationships but at least the car is reliable."
Certainly from the car manufacturer's point of view, the advertisement was considered a roaring success - VW estimates it sold an extra 37,000 Golfs because of the ad.
Commentators argue that the 1980s and the acceleration of the number of women who were in work also finally put an end to what industry insiders refer to as the "two birds and a kitchen" formula of advertising for women.
The scenario of two doughty housewives discussing the relative merits of a washing powder or cleaning product began to slip from the screen (although not before Danny Baker had finished knocking on several suburban front doors offering to relieve hardpressed mothers of their Daz). And the growth of independent women in advertising continued apace after the successful VW advert.
With women's disposable income reaching record levels and social taboos falling away, the 1990s offered advertisers an opportunity to appeal, as one male executive put it, to "the lad in the ladies".
The result was adverts such as those screened in 1991 for Boddingtons beer, with the Mancunian model Melanie Sykes pioneering the idea that girls also drink pints.
In one of the ads, she plays an ice-cream seller pulling pints of Boddingtons instead of serving cornets, with the catchline: "Do you want a Flake in that, luv?"
The campaign was effective, helping the brewer to increase sales from 50 million pints a year in 1991 to 300 million a year by 1995.
The trend of campaigns aimed at women drinkers coincided with a 79 per cent increase in deaths from alcohol related diseases among women aged from 25 to 44.
Between 1988 and 2000, the proportion of women who drank more than 26 units a week - those classified as heavy drinkers - doubled to 6 per cent.
Advertising commentators point out that the industry has now learnt to shed most of the stereotypes that have governed the industry.
Claire Beale, editor of Campaign magazine, said: "Creative departments by now are much better at reflecting the realistic aspirations of women.
"They don't like being addressed with clichés and this is addressed. As an industry, creative departments are still male bastions - only about a quarter of creatives are women."
Other experts point out that the whole idea of tailoring adverts specifically to women is also beginning to become obsolete. The famous "Hello boys" advert for Wonderbra was aimed at both sexes.
Jonathan Mildenhall, of the agency TBWA, said: "Stop treating women as special-needs customers. There's plenty to engage and entertain women across all media, except perhaps the commercial breaks. Women consider many specifically targeted ads to be patronising, embarrassing and irrelevant."
2005: BRITISH AIRWAYS
Twenty-first-century woman works in business and jets around the world to international meetings, according to British Airways. The glossy, successful businesswoman portrayed in the airline's latest advertisement, on screen tonight for the first time, embodies a stereotype fuelled by a growing female presence in the boardroom.
One study found there were 360,000 women in Britain each worth £500,000 or more, with combined assets of £300bn. The study's author said this reflected the huge increase in the number of women working and holding senior managerial roles.
Over the past three decades the female employment rate has jumped from 42 per cent to 70 per cent, and almost a third of managers are women compared to only 2 per cent in 1974.
The campaign, devised by the advertising gurus Maurice and Charles Saatchi, has a young woman in a business suit sleeping on a long-haul flight and waking in Singapore as if she has spent the night in her own bed.
The landmark ads, markedly different from past campaigns which have always had a man in a suit as the "hero' of the storyline, reflect the growing numbers of women among international business travellers. Jayne O'Brien, BA's head of marketing for the UK and Ireland, said the airline was responding to research showing that 40 per cent of BA's UK executive club members were female.
"Yes, it's a woman in the ad and that's very deliberate," she added. "We are focusing much more on designing our products and focusing on the female market. They are an increasing part of our customer base. It is reflective of the business environment: there are more women in jobs with travel.
"We had a big debate over whether she should wear trousers or a skirt. We researched the concept with customers and women were adamant she had to wear a suit and look like a businesswoman. It had to be absolutely clear she wasn't going shopping. We deliberately did not use a top model. She's got to be someone that female flyers will look at and say, 'That could be me'."
Ms O'Brien said the airline was getting increasing amounts of correspondence from female passengers, making suggestions on everything from seat design to the contents of wash-bags. "What we have been hoping to do very deliberately is make the BA brand a bit more inclusive of female travellers," she said.