The consumer is your husband

by Tom Albrighton 23 October 2013 Copywriting

The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man

As well as capturing a timeless truth about marketing, this famous line also tells us a lot about the era when it was written.

On the one hand, it reflects a new respect for ‘the consumer’. When Confessions of an Advertising Man appeared in 1963, a creative revolution was beginning. Inspired by the pioneering work of Bill Bernbach, advertising became much more playful, daring and intriguing. Ads began to treat the reader as an intellectual equal and an accomplice in the creation of meaning – not just a ‘moron’ who could be easily manipulated with tricks and bribes.

However, Oggers’ blithely sexist language shows that his world was still one where ads were created by men for women. It is the world portrayed so vividly in Mad Men. While women may have seen more interesting ads as a result of Ogilvy’s thinking, they were still being tossed those ads by an overwhelmingly male ad industry – and for purely commercial motives, not to further their liberation.

Plus ça change

'What's the answer?' 'Gin, darling. I always get my gin'

‘What’s the answer?’ ‘Gin, darling! I always get my gin’

Fifty years on, it would be nice to think everything had changed. But while more men do the shopping now, it’s a different story when it comes to making the ads. Witness the 3% Conference, an event/movement aimed at increasing the proportion of female creative directors from the pitifully low level of, yes, just 3%.

Clearly, there are lots of female copywriters, art directors and client-facing staff out there. But the 3% statistic has a significant implication for the creative process as a whole. It means that while ads created, nurtured and signed off exclusively by men are commonplace, their ‘all-female’ counterparts must be vanishingly rare – even for products aimed exclusively at women.

Why does that matter? The obvious reason is the principle of equality. Unless there is some objective reason why people of one gender can do a particular job better, we should see equal numbers of men and women performing that role. If we don’t, we rightly suspect prejudice or discrimination in the workplace.

False equivalence

At this point, fools sometimes try to claim that there are fewer female creatives (or comedians, or whatever) because their abilities are inferior. ‘If women had more talent, they’d get more gigs,’ they say.

This argument is based on false equivalence. It pretends, disingenuously, that because men can succeed on merit, we live in a meritocracy. And it inverts cause and effect by implying that women’s lives are the reason for their place in society, rather than the result of it.

In reality, opportunity is far from equal. If you doubt it, read this post by James Chartrand, a female freelance copywriter who started getting far more work the second she adopted her masculine nom de plume. I’m sure many other female creatives can tell stories of dismissive attitudes, glass ceilings and low salaries.

The power of patriarchy

Most businesses, including marketing agencies, are inherently patriarchal. Women work there, but the institutions themselves are predominantly owned and controlled by men. As a result, they have ‘masculine’ cultures, in which it’s far more difficult for women to gain recognition and advancement.

This, in turn, generates perceptions of female inferiority, establishing a vicious circle that men have little incentive to break – at least in terms of narrow self-interest. In this way, patriarchies sustain themselves until they meet a sufficiently powerful challenge. (Of course, women can also be complicit, but I’m not even going there in this short post.)

From this perspective, it’s clear that box-ticking exercises like fulfilling gender quotas, or arbitrary gestures like making Starbuck a woman, are not enough. They are the starting point, not the finishing line. Ultimately, our culture needs to be profoundly and radically feminised in ways that are difficult to imagine, let alone achieve.

Women are the superset

With those principles firmly established, let’s look at the issue from a commercial perspective. Does gender imbalance affect agencies’ ability to reach female consumers? As with the UK Parliament (around 20% female), we have to ask ourselves whether an organisation with such a wildly anomalous gender profile can credibly claim to represent, or communicate with, the wider population.

For 3% founder Kat Gordon, the disadvantages are crystal clear. This quote from her is taken from the conference’s about us page:

There are only three consumer categories where men dominate purchases, yet agencies still talk about ‘women’s accounts’ as mops and makeup. The truth is that women are the superset, not the subset, and the rate at which women are amassing wealth and exerting influence is unprecedented. Yet the work that is supposed to motivate them springs almost entirely from a male perspective. The advertising business is a $33 billion industry. Misunderstanding female consumers, from a business perspective, is sheer lunacy.

Who you are vs what you know

Kat’s position is that men can’t understand women, and therefore can’t sell to them. Is she right?

When I’ve asked ‘can men write for women?’ online, I’ve usually received bullish responses such as ‘anyone can write for anyone’. The idea is appealingly simple and liberal, but ultimately too reductive.

The more complex reality is that a writer’s empathic potential in a given situation is determined by their unique knowledge and background rather than their identity. It’s not who you are, but what you know – and gender plays an important part. 

The blunt query ‘can Gender A write for Gender B?’ obscures the fine but crucial distinction between gender and experience. It’s not that your gender disqualifies you from writing about particular products. Rather, your unique experience of life determines the level of insight you bring to a brief. And your experience, for better or worse, is largely determined by your gender.

Method writing

Copywriting is a bit like method acting. If you want to play someone, or write something that will appeal to them, you have to step into their shoes. And copywriters, like actors, have limits to their range, and areas where they’re more comfortable or knowledgeable. (Robert Downey Jr’s absurd blackface performance in Tropic Thunder played with the idea of an actor pushing the envelope way too far.) The wider a copywriter’s experience, the more people and situations they can relate to – which is one reason why you might prefer a seasoned plodder over a hip young gunslinger.

This year, I’ve written about two products aimed exclusively at women: a cosmetic face mask and a range of yoga and fitness clothing. I was flattered to be asked, and I relished the challenge. In the event, though, I could only get about 95% of the way to a viable text without help from my two respective clients (both female). One noted amusedly that I ‘wrote like a man’, while the other gently pointed out that some of my word choices, while descriptively accurate, just weren’t right.

I didn’t fall short because I was a man. And I didn’t fall short because there is some ineffable core to the experience of femininity that I can never understand – although there may be. I may have fallen short because I’m a crap writer, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. The main reason for my falling short is that I didn’t have enough experience of the products – which was an indirect consequence of my being a man in a society like ours.

Insight is everything

Had my life been different, the result have been different. If I’d previously worked behind a cosmetics counter, or as a personal trainer, I might have far more insight into the way women choose, use and describe the types of products I was writing about. But I haven’t, and I’m betting that relatively few male copywriters have. Conversely, I would imagine that a significant proportion of female copywriters would have first-hand experience of the category. These are factual observations, not value judgements or gender discriminations.

There should be as many female creatives as male. Even if the principle of equality weren’t enough on its own, the commercial argument is unanswerable. Your ability to communicate with people is directly linked to your insight into their experience – and you can’t sell to people you know nothing about.

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