Women lead way in profound but quiet revolution

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There's a social revolution going on, and marketers and advertising agencies have much to learn about it. It has no ideology and no leaders. But it does have leading indicators: women. Where they have gone, society has followed.

It's not a "Dodge rebellion" or some "Generation next" consumer transition, but a deep and thorough reassessment of the fundamental relationship between individuals and institutions.

To see how far it's progressed, look at the way we are behaving. Public displays of emotion, public apologies for personal transgressions and growing interest in spirituality have all followed from what women have exhibited.

Honesty in expressing personal emotions, frankness in asking forgiveness, interest in managing their own health needs and a focus on spirituality are issues that have been on women's personal agendas for years. These, plus women's preferences for personal networks of relationships, dispersed authority, contextual thinking, consensus building and greater flexibility, are ideas organizations are reluctantly having to adopt to remain viable.


Consider the following:

* In 1989, when the Dalai Lama appeared in New York City's Central Park, about 5,000 listeners sat before him. This past summer, when he returned to the same setting, he drew 40,000.

* Despite expensive promotions, viewership for weekly National Football League TV broadcasts, the Master's Golf Tournament, the NCAA Final Four basketball games, professional baseball's World Series and All-Star Game and the National Basketball Association has declined. Similarly, fewer viewers are turning to TV coverage of the annual star-studded Oscar awards. As further testimony on the decline of stars and athletes in the public eye, Planet Hollywood International, operator of the Planet Hollywood and Official All-Star Cafe restaurants, filed for bankruptcy to reorganize its operations in 1999.

* In 1991, when the U.S. women's soccer team returned in triumph from the World Cup, two fans greeted them. This past summer the cup champions received a heroines' welcome, replete with parades and the status-certifying appearances on local, network and cable TV. Their final World Cup game drew a larger TV audience than either pro hockey's Stanley Cup series or pro basketball's NBA finals. Clearly, something is declining and something is rising.


This personal change has forced large institutional change, and this coercive dynamic is taking place all across society as institutions are forced to restructure to reconnect with changing individuals. But it means restructuring in ways leaders hardly understand.

For example, these personal changes have changed how consumers see celebrities. A Women's Wear Daily survey of retail customers discovered that only 2% of shoppers with incomes between $25,000 and $40,000 would go to a store because of a celebrity appearance. What would make them go, they claimed, is a personal connection with someone who works in the store.

Changes like these point to a new reality: Celebrity endorsers have become a waste of money and imagery has lost its power to attract (or distract) consumers, who have pieced together their own ways to determine value.

Changing consumer values are creating problems for advertising. The industry has lost imagery, and the emotional power it exploits, as levers to pull in support of a specific message. Yet it acts as if nothing has changed. To that point, advertising seems confused over how women are affecting society.


Using women in an ad or as a target market-something advertisers and agencies have done quite well-is not the same thing as understanding women as leading indicators of social change.

Using women is drawing on their perspectives for advantage, while comprehending the leading indicator message is understanding the significance, direction and timing of widespread social change. One is short-term while the other stretches ahead. The advertising industry's confusion on this issue is easily seen in its recent efforts to make the women of the U.S. World Cup team into another covey of celebrity endorsers.

Consumers who have re-evaluated their own priorities have grown skeptical of anything that sounds like selling, and many have leveraged that skepticism with newly available tools-specifically Internet empowerment. Consumers can now research, shop, compare, finance and purchase products without relying on advertisements. This Internet-based ability has placed additional emotional as well as physical distance between advertisers and consumers.


Consumers now own the commercial relationship. That lessens the impact of traditional advertising and it greatly alters any role advertising might hope to play in this new commercial relationship.

For advertising agencies to shift roles, from that of tactical planner for advertisers to strategic planner, they must have something invaluable to add. It must not depend on image, celebrities or other traditional advertising tools, and must deeply understand the meaning, significance and direction of large social changes. And agencies must acknowledge that, in the changed market environment, advertising might not be an effective tactic to obtain a specific strategic objective.

From this perspective, the personal changes that women were the first to exhibit have now worked their way into the advertising industry, forcing advertisers and agencies to rethink the value proposition that advertising offers.M

Mr. Hess is founder and managing partner, Inferential Focus, New York, which identifies social, political, economic and cultural change for corporate, investor and non-profit clients.

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