Baileys boss flies the flag for women in ads at Cannes Lions

By Jane Austin in Cannes

It’s an interesting and often disturbing exercise to revisit movies from your youth in light of the MeToo and TimesUp movements and see how outdated and sexist the portrayal of women seems. The actress Molly Ringwald recently admitted she now finds The Breakfast Club, the cult 90s film she starred in “troubling,” having watched it again with her 10-year-old daughter.

Sadly, one doesn’t have to look back to be troubled by sexism in advertising. It still persists, despite initiatives like Unilever’s Unstereotype Alliance, the ‘FreeTheBid’ movement to get more female commercial directors hired, and Badger & Winters’ ‘Womenarenotobjects’ campaign. Progress is strangely and frustratingly slow in advertising despite evidence showing that women’s purchasing intent goes up when their gender is portrayed in meaningful and respectful ways.

Grainne Wafer (below), the global brand director for Baileys, addressed this issue in a workshop at Cannes on how to develop more gender inclusive creative. The conclusion of the session was that, to guard against conscious and unconscious gender bias, brands and agencies need to follow a strict set of guidelines – making sure that women are confidently taking up space on screen and are owning their behaviour (not just laughing at salad or “giving blowjobs to sandwiches” as Badger & Winters put it in their campaign).

Baileys and other Diageo brands’ ads were assessed by the audience for their success in terms of gender portrayal and one Baileys ad from 2012, a Hollywood-style number by BBH called ‘Cream with Spirit’ didn’t fare so well. The ad, an homage to 1930s movies, features attractive female dancers moving in kaleidoscopic formation to Blondie’s Rapture. It ends with a woman in a swim cap diving into a glass of Baileys, and transforming into the cream liquor on the way.

Wafer pointed to the common practice in advertising of turning women not just figuratively but literally into objects – like in this case some high-cal booze. She admitted though the ad was successful from a commercial perspective at the time, it probably wouldn’t even get through research now. Back in 2012, the brand’s purpose was to ‘inspire women to shine’, but times have moved on. Nowadays, the focus is on being progressive in terms of gender portrayal. “I don’t need a brand to inspire me to shine,” she noted.

It’s refreshing to see that level of self-awareness coming from a major advertiser. I’d argue that, as well as guidelines and industry-wide campaigns, those of us who would rather not see another ad where the women have about as much agency as the soft furnishings, need brand guardians like these with the awareness and confidence to publicly own up to past mistakes, learn from them and make a concerted effort to now raise the bar with their advertising.

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About Jane Austin

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Jane Austin is the founder and owner of PR agency Persuasion Communications.