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The first event of its kind was deemed an “unqualified success” by those in Chicago on October 18, 2003 at a Symposium sponsored by the Advertising Educational Foundation (AEF) at Northwestern University School of Law. In keeping with AEF’s mission—to encourage dialogue between academia and the advertising industry—this important gathering focused on: How is Advertising Shaping the Image of Women?

Linda Scott, University of Illinois Professor and Symposium Chair, explained the goal of the day. “Professionals, academics, and activists share a lot of the same concerns,” she said. “It’s a tragedy we don’t have more connections.” It is necessary, Dr. Scott says, to bring fresh thinking to this topic since “ground has been lost in terms of sexual stereotyping in the last ten years.” She urged the audience to seek common ground: “Two very different worlds are coming together today. They have differences in style and values, but keep an open mind for the obvious similarities.”

Educators, activists, students and advertising professionals came together to exchange ideas and to take stock of just what progress society has made in its portrayal of women in advertising since the advent of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s.

The beneficiaries of this unprecedented exchange were the participants who learned that, in fact, they share several common insights:

  • Teens and young women warrant particular attention in terms of being portrayed in a more realistic and less offensive fashion.
  • Agency creative departments should employ more women.
  • More needs to be done to portray women in advertising the “way they really are.”

Most encouraging, all participants agreed the dialogue on women needs to continue. The December issue of Advertising & Society Review, aef.com’s online academic journal, focuses on Women and Advertising. The AEF intends to continue to bring together representatives of academia and the advertising industry to discuss this issue and other important subjects in similar forums.


The dialogue began with Jennifer Scanlon, Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin College, who offered a historic vantage on women in advertising and recognized the movement of women into the workplace from WWI through WWII. She pointed out that the female image is not very different today. “A woman’s role was largely defined as the consumer,” she said.

She narrated the stories of the first women in advertising in 1924 at J. Walter Thompson, the only advertising agency providing professional opportunities for women at the time.

Cheryl Berman, Chief Creative Officer at Leo Burnett, shared her personal opinions and experiences regarding women in advertising, both as a woman creating it and a woman affected by it. Cheryl credited LeoShe as helping Burnett "makeover" brands including Special K, Tampax and Hallmark, to increase their relevancy among contemporary female consumers and said that clients' support made her hopeful for the future. "After all, our clients realize that women constitute a powerful market segment," she said, citing reports that women initiate 75% of all consumer electronics purchases, influence more than 80% of all car purchases, and command 85% of total personal consumption spending.

“Can There Be Feminism in Advertising?” Judy Lotas, Partner of LPNY Ltd., presented The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Awards from Advertising Women of New York to illustrate the importance of applauding positive portrayals of women in advertising and condemning negative ones.

Judy also suggested replacing “feminist” which often ignites negative associations with independent women today, by suggesting “fairest,” which simply means “one who works to be just and honest.”

Linda Smolak, Professor of Psychology at Kenyon College, provided the causes and effects of body dissatisfaction among young women citing advertising as only one element among a series of various influences such as peers and parents.

Professor Susan Bordo from the University of Kentucky revealed that it is not the presence of thin, beautiful women in advertising that is manipulative, but the exclusion of women of all sizes and skin color.

Gloria Steinem began her remarks with a plea for unity among the diverse audience. "Advertising professionals, academics and activists have to work together, because advertising is a source of information on what we get in the world, in politics, and it affects the environment and the planet. We had better pay attention to it."

She first acknowledged the positive side of advertising. "Advertising says we don't have to be born into a certain group to have a certain type of life," she said. However, she suggested that before embracing the future of advertising, one must leave it entirely. She said, "To make the world a more just, peaceful and livable place, we need to understand what our visions are without the influence of advertising."

"After we've separated ourselves from advertising, we can return to it and have choice about it," she said.

Gloria reiterated that advertising can work to empower women if all women, professionals, academics and activists, decide to work together. "It all starts with consciousness and it proceeds through community," she said.

Amy Richards, author and columnist, immediately followed, opening the way to the current feminist movement known as the “Third Wave.” Women must understand that they do not have to choose between what they want and feminism.

She emphasized that women can make decisions benefiting their individual needs, allowing them to operate in the world, and still be feminists so long as they never leave their feminism out of their lives.

The dialogue succeeded in incorporating the portrayal of women of color in advertising. Fay Ferguson, Managing Director of Burrell Communications and an African-American, delivered a moving speech and declared that we must look to the past before moving forward. “To know where you’re headed, you must first know where you’ve been.”

Fay said that before World War II African-Americans did not exist in advertising and today Ann Fudge is President & CEO of Young & Rubicam.

She also remarked that black agencies like Burrell tend to depict real images of women in real roles.

Covering nearly ever aspect of the history of women in advertising, the AEF also provided a panel, “What do Women in Advertising Think.” The panel was moderated by Anne Dooley, EVP client service director at BBDO/Chicago, and included Cheryl Greene, managing partner and chief strategy officer at Deutsch, Inc., Jan Murley, former marketing director of Hallmark Cards, and Tonise Paul, president and CEO at BBDO/Chicago. The panelists answered a series of questions from the audience, most of which touched upon how to stop the demeaning portrayal of women in the media.

The panelists collectively agreed that the most powerful action is reaction. “Tell the agency and the client what ads you dislike and why,” Cheryl advised. “Even just one letter is taken with the utmost seriousness.”

Tonise mentioned her own distaste for some of the current advertisements, in particular the Abercrombie & Fitch print ads. She said that she stopped shopping there, and urged her daughter to do the same, after seeing an ad of a naked young girl and two men. All the women agreed that young girls are in need of positive female images.

Capping the symposium, Dana Anderson, president and CEO at Foote, Cone & Belding/Chicago, gave a speech entitled, "Great Women I Have Loved." She addressed the personas of the self-deprecating Frida Kahlo, the self-aware and confident Maya Angelou, and the insecure Audrey Hepburn.

She said that while she loves Maya Angelou for her strength, she also loves Frida Kahlo and Audrey Hepburn because they never loved themselves. "They never had a girlfriend to tell them how wonderful they were," Dana said, "and they were unable to see it for themselves."

Striking a similar note to Cheryl Berman’s comment earlier about what women want -- "Women want what people want: respect, understanding, a little help" – Dana stressed that the portrayal of women in advertising, like all things, is dependent on respect for humanity and each other.

She ended the day with an empowering and moving quote from Eudora Welty, "All serious daring starts from within."


Presentations will be available on aef.com.


Kathy Grantham, aef

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