As anyone knows, watching the Super Bowl ads are part of the sport itself. During these spots, it is typical to see the blatant sexism flag fly. Last night viewers on my Twitter feed took particular umbrage with an Audi spot depicting a
surprise kiss sexual assault, and a moronic Go Daddy spot divvying up two sides of the business with a “sexy” woman and a “smart” man.
Glorifying male aggression and casting women as idiotic objects is stupid business — women make 85 percent of consumer decisions, and 91 percent say advertisers don’t understand them — Mad Men indeed.
As a former advertising creative myself (I was a copywriter), I can tell you the problem isn’t because agencies don’t have access to sophisticated research or smart people to make ads. The problem is that creative departments are overwhelmingly male. White male, to be exact.
A few numbers:
In 2010, 94 percent of Super Bowl ads created by advertising agencies were done under the supervision of white male creative directors. The remaining six percent were led by white women creative directors.
In 2011, the numbers didn’t get much better. The creative directors of the Super Bowl ads were 94 percent male and 93 percent white.
Less than ten years have passed since legendary creative director Neil French shared his opinion that women don’t make it to the top of creative departments because “they don’t deserve to.” This is quite contrary to what I saw in my experience as an advertising creative. The few women who make it into creative departments tend to work harder and produce better work than everyone else, because they have to to earn their spots.
First, advertising agencies tend to be so segregated by gender that it’s easy to guess that virtually any woman you see in an agency belongs to account or any department but creative. A friend, a woman, is one of the most talented and creative visual artists I have ever seen. Her talent is exploding; she is better than most of the admittedly talented men I have worked with. But instead she is an acclaimed account executive, meaning she works with clients. That is just what women do in advertising. We really haven’t progressed much far from the days when Peggy had to hope to get noticed. There are exceptions, but not enough.
Second, it is all in the hiring and the assignments. People tend to hire, mentor, place and promote people who look like them. In advertising creative departments this tends to play out in a similar fashion. This business relies upon camaraderie, the ability to “hang out and be cool,” and many times beer and games within the team. Not all, but many, creative areas in agencies have the feel of a frat house.
Now I know that some of my friends and other advertisers will read this and say this leaves out the women who are doing great work, and that is not my intention at all. I acknowledge and celebrate their work. But having been in that position, and having also left the industry, I know that I’m also in a space where I have the freedom to say things that maybe some of them can’t.
I will never forget a time when I saw some comps on the table that were going to a client who sold small project paints. The concept on top had a photograph of a glistening, practically naked woman with an arched back. Knowing the creative team (all men, like I said, they almost always are), I walked into one office, slammed it down on the desk and yelled: “What the fuck is this?”
Watching the ads last night it was very easy to tell there remain very few women — much less a critical mass — there to yell “What the fuck is this?” within the advertising industry’s glorified (and very fun, let me tell you it is a great job) creative departments, and even fewer in leadership roles that lend more power than peer pressure. It is reasonable to expect that correcting this problem would help profits go up, not a bad thing in a struggling economy.