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Ads for women are 'Miss Understood'
Recent study concludes that ads targeting newly empowered women are mostly cliched and offensive.
September 22, 2004: 5:24 PM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - They are better educated, earning more money than ever, and make the bulk of buying decisions. Yet when it comes to wooing women, advertisers could use a lesson in the art of courtship.

So concluded a recent study of women consumers from around the world, the results of which were discussed Wednesday as part of Advertising Week in New York.

The findings? Women choose how 88 percent of every disposable dollar is spent -- including 53 percent of all stock purchases, 63 percent of personal computer buys, and 75 percent of all over-the-counter drug outlays -- and yet are subjected to advertising that is often full of cliches, uninspiring and even offensive.

"Women are simply not buying the message we have to sell," said Linda Wolf, the chief executive officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide, the Publicis Groupe (PUB: down $0.96 to $27.99, Research, Estimates) unit that conducted the survey.

In a sharp critique of her industry, Wolf said that the very ads that are aimed at women too often leave them feeling objectified, debased or demoralized -- "the beer-babe-and-bimbo, male-targeted ads that offend women from around the world."

Wolf said the perception seems pervasive. She cited other published data showing that 65 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 40 found advertising aimed at women to be patronizing. Fifty-percent of them found these ads to be "old-fashioned."

Of more than 400 award-winning ads produced since 1990 that were analyzed by Leo Burnett, less than 10 were clearly directed at female consumers.

An industry wake-up call

That's the bad news. The good news is, dynamics are changing fast. Leo Burnett chief creative officer Cheryl Berman, who also spoke during the presentation, said more than 50 percent of MBA students at the top Ivy League schools are women. One in four married women around the world now earns more than her husband.

And women's spending habits are changing too. "They're buying the booze. They're buying the condoms. They're even buying the guns," said Bernice Kanner, an advertising expert who appeared in a video accompanying the Leo Burnett presentation.


And some marketers -- not many, however -- are beginning to clue in to what makes the ever-changing female demographic tick. Wolf and Berman said they scoured the globe looking for ads that work. They didn't find many. But the few they found were often irreverent and funny.

Some openly ridiculed men. Others depicted women's strength. Many borrowed a page from HBO's "Sex and the City" with unabashedly sexual overtones.

Among the samples shown:

  • An ad for the Singapore Cancer Society silently follows a string of men leering at a well-endowed woman in a summer tank dress as she rides an escalator, stands in a bus and walks down the street. A voice then intones: "If only women examined their breasts as often as men do."
  • A commercial for Heinz microwaveable soups features a man in bed grinning broadly after having just had sex. His partner gets up, pads into the kitchen, and reaches the microwave just as it finishes the two-minute cooking time she apparently set just in time for the brief coital interlude. The ad ends with her eating soup and smirking at her lover.
  • A Morgan Stanley ad features several identical women sitting around a conference table that's set in an open green pasture. Called a meeting of "Julie's subconscious," the various characters named Julie take turns talking about instant gratification, fretting about her retirement planning, going into denial, discussing pipe dreams, and "Julie's irrational fear of ending up a bag lady."

Try sex and make it funny

Wolf and Berman said these messages work because they convey a woman's point of view. Sex, they said, sells only if it's portrayed from the perspective of the 'x' chromosome. Messages that are funny, real, evoke emotion, and acknowledge women's growing financial power also work.

The study findings, according to Wolf, were based on informal focus groups that Leo Burnett hosted around the world, in Mexico, the U.S., Britain, India and China, among other places.

The women ranged in age from teens to 40-year-olds. Company officials also analyzed published data and talked to journalists and other industry insiders.

The results were first presented in June at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France.  Top of page

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