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Jon Evans: should it be International Women’s Day for advertisers all year round?

International Women’s Day sees brands queueing up to celebrate women and show their understanding of women’s lives and issues. But how effective are these efforts?

At System1 we’ve never seen a specific IWD ad or campaign get the top 5-Star score. That’s partly because a lot of the best IWD work isn’t ad-based – it involves activations and practical programs to resolve women’s issues.

But it’s also the case that brands are often looking beyond the calendar and making great ads which explicitly focus on women’s issues but which aren’t tied to a particular event like International Women’s Day.

Nike’s “Toughest Athletes” from 2021, celebrating pregnant athletes, is a powerful reminder of the strength of female bodies – it scored a strong 3.9-Stars in our Test Your Ad platform. Last year’s tribute ad to Serena Williams from Nike scored 5-Stars and ended up in our ranking of 2022’s most effective work.

Boots’ “Get Summer Ready” – also from 2021, scored 4.0-Stars with its vibrant, funny portrayal of ordinary women getting ready for holiday. When tested amongst the target market of women the score jumped to a maximum 5-Stars.

Similarly, Pantene’s 2019 “Power Of Grey” celebrating grey hair scored a good 3.8-Stars among viewers as a whole but among 55-and-over women it jumped to 4.9-Stars.

All of these are ads supporting and celebrating women and reflecting their real lives and concerns. None of them were IWD releases.

This reflects what we learned from our wider studies on representation and inclusion in advertising. In our reports on the issues around diversity and representation in ads, Feeling Seen and Wise Up!, we’ve found two different ways in which diverse groups respond to ads.

When a group has been poorly represented in ads, often simple representation can make for highly effective advertising. Being recognised and seen on screen often creates a jump in positive response. For some groups of women – especially middle-aged women – there’s a real ‘invisibility’ problem in advertising and we see uplifts like this from positive representation. For instance, the way older women respond to work like Pantene.

It’s different, though, when a group appears in ads a lot but their representation has been poor, stereotyped, or otherwise failing to reflect the lived experience of people in the group. For women in general, this has too often been the problem – a male-dominated industry trying to appeal to female consumers in patronising, tin-eared and cliched ways. When ads make a conscious effort to break free of this, like Boots’, they see a boost in effectiveness.

The yearly calendar of inclusion – taking in not just International Women’s Day but Pride Month, Black History Month, Disability Awareness Month, and others – can be an opportunity to put the spotlight on groups which lack representation. But the most effective campaigns often step outside the calendar – inclusion is important all year round. It also makes better business sense – if you’re appealing to a particular segment, do you really want to run a campaign on the same day, week or month every other brand is?

Are we saying it’s time for brands to step back from International Women’s Day? Not at all. It’s a good opportunity to put a spotlight on marginalised or unrepresented groups of women. And it’s a moment for brands to have a hard look at whether their actions match their words. After all, the single most talked-about IWD action last year was the Twitter bot which automatically replied to corporate tweets with their gender pay gap figures.

As for advertising, 2023 will certainly see some superb, effective adverts which celebrate women and their lives. But they might come from anyone at any time, not just on March 8th.

Jon Evans is chief customer officer, System1

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