If we could deal with these questions, we could improve the quality of all our work.
Feel your throat tightening? Your eyes rolling? Whether you're a man or a woman, you know what I mean. Y2K is almost here. We "get it" now. Don't we have more decks, research and data about women than we can possibly use? Can't we stop this unending preaching about how women are different?
Well, no, actually. Because it feels like we're regressing. And, worse, that agencies haven't seen the light, as much of corporate America has.
Examples of regression? Welcome to Super Bowl 1999. Enough has been written about the juvenile quality of some of the spots that ran on a broadcast that, according to Nielsen, captured an audience that was 42% female. Do we still think the Super Bowl is a male-targeted buy? Or that women viewers don't matter when it's touchdown time? Or the most out-dated notion of all: that men are just into locker room humor?
The icing on the Super Bowl cake, the Victoria's Secret spot, was ballyhooed as the epitome of "media convergence." When is anyone going to admit that it was a 30-second chance to see Tyra in a thong? The good news is that it's a marketing success. For now, at least. Since women account for 90% of Victoria's Secret sales, what will happen to the longer term growth of the brand if it continues to attract men by making women feel uncomfortable? That was the feeling in a lot of living rooms that Sunday. Kind of how a Viagra commercial feels to a guy.
Accepting the power of women as consumers is still a hard pill for some to swallow. I learned it recently when I announced that I'm forming a new company dedicated to understanding women. Many said, "Why would you want to put yourself into a niche like that?"
REWARDING THE WRONG WORK
A niche? Focusing on mud wrestlers in Ohio is a niche. But 51.2% of the population, who influence or buy two-thirds of the $3 trillion spent in the United States, is a consumer avalanche.
And yet we treat this subject like something that's boring or not cool. There's more interest in a conference on Internet marketing to 12-year-olds than to the biggest consumer segment in the country.
A lot has been written about how women have changed the way the world works, particularly business. Their influence has not been to feminize the workplace but to humanize it. Women are champions of people. They should have that same influence on advertising. And agencies.
Our industry isn't getting it. Look at what wins creative awards: Often the most over-the-top infantile humor. Rewarding that kind of work just generates more of it. And who are the judges? The One Show: 20 men, four women. Cannes: 19 men, four women. It's partly a reflection of the small pool of women creative directors, partly because of neglect.
WOMEN TRULY NOTICE ADS
Would more female creative leaders lead to a more modern creative voice? Perhaps. But the fact remains that the current lack of balance and the work that results is out-of-sync with the growing value of women as consumers.
Frankly, none of this would matter if women didn't care about advertising. But they do. In fact, women truly notice ads, even those not specifically targeted to them. Four out of five categories tested by Starch showed higher noted scores for women than men. This applies not just to "female products" but to computers, financial services, communications, even building supplies. Intended or not, they're listening to you.
The good news is women are happy to tell you what matters if you just ask. After several years of learning about women, we invented something that gets at the insights that can actually improve creative work. And it's fun, not remedial.
It's a talk-show style group, called "Just Ask a Woman," complete with TV cameras, hosts and a tell-all attitude. After interviewing hundreds of women, we've learned a few lessons.
Like men, women love humor in advertising. They can laugh at themselves. Note the new ad from Maidenform: "inner beauty only goes so far." And even some gentle male-bashing works. Men laugh just as hard as women at the Special K guy who bemoans, "I have my mother's thighs."
NEW CHANCE TO GET IT RIGHT
When you're casting women, know that they like to see other women who are diverse, confident and naturally beautiful. Women respond to emotional truth, to real life experience. And women have very high expectations for themselves. In one session, we asked, "If you were reincarnated, who would you come back as?" One woman answered, "A blend of Grace Kelly and Golda Meir." Feminism meets femininity.
Think your agency has cracked this? Just look at your current reel from the point of view of a woman consumer. (She probably buys most of what you're selling.) Are there women in significant roles? Any heroes? Are they smart, funny, real? Or are they props?
The good news about our business is that every day is a new chance to get it right. Can we finally acknowledge that women are a powerhouse, not a niche? That it's no longer about favoring men or women, or using targeting as an excuse for making the other sex the target? And that if we learn a little more about women, we might actually create more provocative, insightful ads that connect with human beings?
Ms. Quinlan is vice chairman of MacManus Group, New York, and heads a multi-