'Feminine Mystique' Remains Unanswered 50 Years On

'Mad Men'-Era Gender Roles Linger in Ads and at Agencies

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Fifty years later, the ad messages remain the same.

When Ad Age asked me for my take on how much advertising to women has changed since "The Sexual Sell" chapter in Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," I had to go and buy a copy to reread it.

I asked the information desk at my local Barnes & Noble where I could find the book -- which turns 50 this year -- and was directed to Women's Studies. I located it quickly, but then found myself browsing through the many brilliant and compelling books alongside it, thinking what a pity they were all categorized in a section that was guaranteed not to attract male browsers and buyers.

That's the first thing that hasn't changed about advertising to women, right there.

I'm not going to recap what "The Sexual Sell" is all about -- because I had enormous trouble forcing myself to reread it without giving in to my constant desire to scream very loudly and hurl the book at the wall. Suffice it to say it's everything you cringe at in "Mad Men" -- our industry reinforcing through psychological manipulation that a woman's place is in the home so she will stay there and buy lots of home-related products. As in 1963, so with the Women's Studies section in B&N in 2013: We're a subset. We're a specific target audience. We are categorized as "women's this" and "women's that."

But we're not a subset. We're the norm.

In 1963, Friedan wrote, "Women are the chief customers of American business ... women wield 75% of the purchasing power in America."

That hasn't changed, either. Women are still the majority purchasers in many product sectors and the majority influencers of purchases (including in sectors like cars and electronics). Women are the majority of users of social media; the majority of gamers; the majority of people expressing themselves online.

And yet the majority of people creating advertising that targets women are male (only 3% of ad agency creative directors in the U.S. are female). The majority of people deciding the gold standard of creativity, appeal and effectiveness of that advertising are male (as anyone who's played "hunt the woman" in an advertising-awards-jury photo knows). And the majority if not nearly all the people leading and managing the holding companies and agencies -- in other words, the firms that drive our businesses -- are male.

That's the third thing that hasn't changed since Friedan's day. We, the dominant consumer, are still all too often reflected back to ourselves through the male gaze. We are still being shown images that men believe we aspire to -- or should aspire to.

Because of my venture MakeLoveNotPorn, I am regularly asked to comment on whether porn degrades women. I explain that it is inevitable that any industry primarily informed, influenced, driven and led by men will produce a certain amount of output that is offensive to women. And then I point them to the Super Bowl ad breaks.

The day we have a porn industry that is 50/50 driven and led by women as well as men, that targets women and men equally and makes equal amounts of money out of women as well as men, is the day we no longer have a porn industry that degrades anyone. The same is true of advertising. At a time when our industry struggles to innovate and disrupt itself, diversity drives true innovation. That's diversity in every sense, not just gender. But in the first instance, want to do one thing that will instantly blow fresh air into your business? Identify every area of your agency/company that is all-male or male-dominated and change that.

Our industry sells to women, first and foremost. When it comes to purchasing power and influence, women are the norm. We need to flip the industrywide mind-set -- that men are the main, most interesting audience, and the only one you can do great creative work for -- and to pursue together the best of all possible futures for our industry: one envisioned, driven and built by men and women equally.

Friedan wrote: "Never underestimate the power of a woman, says another ad. But that power was and is underestimated in America. ... Perhaps it is only a sick society, unwilling to face its own problems and unable to conceive of goals and purposes equal to the ability and knowledge of its members, that chooses to ignore the strength of women."

Substitute the word "industry" for "society," and let's take a long hard look at ourselves. We owe it to Betty.

Cindy Gallop is the former chairman of BBH New York and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld & MakeLoveNotPorn.

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