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Special Issue: Women in Advertising

Many women who work in advertising, including several who have reached the top of their organizations, have a long-term commitment to the advancement of women's causes. Quite a few consider themselves feminists, though their politics may not fit the stringent definitions of academic feminism. It is not uncommon for these women to express their support of the womens movement through their market activities (e.g., promotions for breast cancer research, changes in the representation of women by their client or agency). However, feminists working in academia and the media often focus on the oppressive aspects of the marketplace in a manner that explicitly excludes women employed in market professions. As a result, the dialogue that began in the 1970s between those who criticize advertising and those who are in a place to positively, actively affect the content of ads, has long since gone quiet.1 Today, women predominate in advertising at nearly every level (including management), and in nearly every aspect (excepting only creative departments). Yet they often feel that their efforts and thoughts are not heard or recognized by others committed to women's issues and become discouraged from future attempts. This situation is a tragedy for both the advertising industry and the women's movement.

On October 18, 2003, the Advertising Educational Foundation hosted How is Advertising Shaping the Image of Women?, a symposium intended to renew dialogue between professional women in advertising and feminists working in universities or the media. The event was held at Northwestern University in Chicago and Gloria Steinem was the keynote speaker. Amy Richards, co-author of Manifesta, came to speak from the perspective of the Third Wave. We were joined also by Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, Linda Smolak, author of several books on eating disorders, and Jennifer Scanlon, author of Inarticulate Longings, a history of the Ladies Home Journal all of them strong, respected academics and feminists.2 The important difference between this event and other symposia on the issue of advertising's effect on women, however, is that a number of female executives from the advertising industry were also on the program:

Dana Anderson, President & Chief Executive Officer; Foote, Cone & Belding/Chicago

Cheryl Berman, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer; Leo Burnett Worldwide

Anne Dooley, EVP Client Service Director; BBDO/Chicago

Fay Ferguson, Managing Director; Burrell Communications

Cheryl Greene, Managing Partner, Chief Strategy Officer; Deutsch, Inc.

Judy Lotas, Partner; LPNY Ltd.

Jan Murley, former Marketing Director; Hallmark Cards

Tonise Paul, President & Chief Executive Officer; BBDO/Chicago.

This coming together of advertising professionals with feminist critics was a historical first. It could have been a tense moment. Instead, the entire day was characterized by the pleasant surprise of common ground, shared concerns, and collaborative possibilities. We promised each other to stay in touch, to meet again, to keep working together.

The interviews in this special issue explore the many ways in which, and on multiple fronts, such an effort has been occurring and might be expanded. The first interview is with Gloria Steinem, who talked with me just before her speech at the symposium. Consistent with her famous article, Sex, Lies, and Advertising, Ms. Steinem continues to see the influence of advertising over the content of women's magazines as the largest issue.3 The women's magazines are primarily staffed by women, as they have been from their beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, Jennifer Scanlon's book, Inarticulate Longings, talks about the proto-feminism behind the Ladies Home Journal, as well as the quite vocal feminism among the advertising women at J. Walter Thompson. In the early century, the JWT women had quite a bit of influence over the content of the women's magazines, because they managed the leading toiletries in nearly every category, and their agency had some exclusive arrangements with the magazines themselves. Importantly, the impetus of their influence frequently was to encourage those magazines to cover the issues central to the women's movement at that time, including not only suffrage but the many other progressive efforts being undertaken under the aegis of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Except for Dr. Scanlon's excellent book, however, very little has been written to describe the history of the professional women in advertising and the media as feminists. So, very few people know that such role models exist, not only in the history of the First Wave, but in the history of the Second Wave, too. The corpus of work documenting the story of the movement needs to include those women, as it is clear that the efforts of professionals in both stages were crucial elements in the feminist successes that characterize those two moments in the century. Consequently, there is potential to make a contribution here for both women in the media and in academic feminism.4

Denise Fedewa, a senior vice president with Leo Burnett and one of the professionals who worked behind the scenes to produce the symposium, describes another institutional route to having a positive impact on the way the advertising industry thinks about and portrays women. A subgroup of Leo Burnett, LeoShe, was founded by Ms. Fedewa and two other women for the explicit purpose of breaking down monolithic notions among marketers about who women are and what women want. Ms. Fedewa describes several important and fascinating projects in which LeoShe learned in greater depth about the multiple realities of what it means to be a woman in late-20th-century America. Not only does the LeoShe group have a legitimate claim to have positively affected the problem of female representation in advertising, their research would be of considerable interest to scholars in women's studies programs who work on documenting and understanding the daily lives constructed by gender. The potential for collaboration between groups like Leo She and gender studies academics, therefore, points again to a way that both groups could contribute to a common cause.

The Advertising Women of New York has been engaged in promoting the professional success and equal rights of women in advertising since 1912. This organization, therefore, was clearly born of the same tradition that founded the club movement so central to the success of suffrage and other feminist initiatives of the early century. Indeed, the roots of the General Federation of Women's Club can be traced to the founding of Sorosis in the 1870s by professional women in media. It is also little recognized today that the birth of the National Organization for Women in 1966 was in this tradition, rather than being a creation of campus radicalism. The founders of NOW were professional women, many of them writing for the womens magazines, working in advertising or public relations, or reporting in the media. The friction between the early NOW women and the campus radicals who joined the movement four years later is, in fact, probably the precursor to the chasm that has separated professionals and academics in recent years. In the third interview, two leaders of AWNY, Liz Schroeder and Margie Goldsmith, describe the activities of AWNY, from providing career guidance to young women, to recognizing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in ads every year. By shaming those who create ads that denigrate women, AWNY provides a concrete, on-the-ground effect that brings home the points made by feminist critics in a way that academic articles seldom can. Thus, the potential for alliance is, again, clearly visible. Further, the engagement of AWNY in education provides an already-existing bridge that could be used to cross the gulf between professionals and professors.

Mary Lou Quinlan was a college student in the days of the early Second Wave. In her interview, she tells of her experiences as a female in a college that was just going co-educational. Then she tells how her consciousness as a feminist traveled with her through 20 years in marketing, first at Avon, and then at several national agencies. She became the first female CEO of the nation's oldest advertising agency, N.W. Ayer. Recently, she has founded her own market research firm, dedicated to the study of women and their lives. Through Ms. Quinlan's interview, we get a peek into the social pressures within an agency that can lead to offensive advertising being approved and produced. Like several women at the symposium, Ms. Quinlan points to the underrepresentation of women in creative departments as a key reason why such ads continue to run. She also agreed with a large group of women at the symposium that the ads directed at young women (and young men) were a particularly bothersome aspect of todays culture and probably constitute an issue that women from both the professions and the academy can unite to protest.

So there are clearly many points at which feminists in these two erstwhile enemy camps could forge important and productive alliances. Since October 18, in fact, many of the women at our symposium have remained in touch with each other. They have written letters, shared ideas, even talked about planning protests. It seems that the common ground they have recently discovered is an exciting and encouraging space. I hope we will hear more from them in future discourse about advertising and its effects on women.

Linda M. Scott
Department of Advertising,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


1See, for instance, Lucy Komisar, "The Image of Woman in Advertising," Woman in Sexist Society, ed. Vivian Gornick (NY: New American Library, 1971) pp. 304-317. Rena Bartos, Moving Target: What Every Marketer Should Know About Women (New York: Free Press, 1982), and Linda M. Scott, "Marketing and Feminism: The Case for a Paradigm Shift," Marketing and Feminism: Current Issues and Research, eds. Miriam Catterall, Pauline Maclaran, and Lorna Stevens (London: Routledge, 2000).

2For further reading, see Jennifer Scanlon, Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture (NY: Routledge, 1995); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000); Linda Smolak, Michael Levine, and Ruth Striegel-Moore, The Developmental Psychopathology of Eating Disorders (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996); and Ruth Streigel-Moore and Linda Smolak, Eating Disorders (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001).

3Gloria Steinem. 1990. Sex, Lies, and Advertising. Ms. July/August.

4Sources on feminist history include Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard, 1975); William L. O'Neill, Everyone was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969); Marcia Cohen, The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); and Chafetz, J.S. and A. Dworkin, Female Revolt: Womens Movements in World and Historical Perspective (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenfeld, 1986).