Gender, Movement and Inclusivity in Advertising

Over recent years there have been steady calls for greater inclusivity in advertising by consumers, the pandemic has given shoppers extra time and energy to make their voices heard. Increased mobile and social media use during the pandemic have fostered bonds stronger than ever between consumers and positive brand image.

Social media has given marginalised groups a platform to create diverse campaigns, causing consumers to flock in masses from brands due to lack of action on representation. Maintaining brand loyalty is an increasingly valuable skill for brands, in the age of social media cancellations and heightened social awareness due to the pandemic. The consequences of lacking representation are seen in the decline of Victoria Secret’s popularity, with their new campaigns struggling to repair the connection with their old demographics.

Unique in connecting new age, socially conscious women is the delicate balance between gender, sexuality and aspiration. The most successful brands use aspirational imagery, movement, motivational language, women (including trans) of all sizes, colour and creed in their campaigns. Brands need to use their campaigns to bridge the gap between misogynistic advertising trends of old. For example, male-oriented lingerie campaigns despite most women’s underwear are bought by women, for women. Such campaigns will be referred to as having a perspective from the “male gaze”.The intimate nature of lingerie and underwear means brands must carefully reflect lifestyle elements in the campaigns to get closer to women.

Agent Provocateur (AP) released the “We Play To Win” athletics-inspired campaign in March 2020, featuring athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics. It was received well reaching 900,000 views on YouTube, 300,000+ likes on Instagram with an engagement rate of 1.5%. AP has been championed for ‘speaking to women’, that is, not advertising intimacy through the “male gaze”. AP speak to women using their signature feminine style: pastel colours and a smoky vignette filter. Careful eye contact from models, engrossed in self and sport.

The campaign aimed to show that women who dedicate themselves to any cause, in this case, sport, are not one dimensional. Their sexiness is in their strength and dedication, by marrying sex appeal and hard work AP captured the modern who woman engages in self-improvement, gender and sexual exploration.

The campaign featured interactive engagement, calls to action including an Instagram takeover by athletes asking women to exercise and pose in their AP sets. Using athletes to call consumers to action proved successful, with thousands of women taking part using the campaign hashtags.

Athlete and AP ambassador Queen Harrison-Claye champions AP for giving athletes a platform in a relevant campaign on her own Instagram: “A true statement to what I’ve always known but was never shown: athletic physiques BELONG in every space! This campaign celebrates feminine strength and the limitless potential we possess when we’ve got the right support.”

Not all believed the campaign bridged the gap between male-focused lingerie advertising. Athlete Sage Watson hinting AP was on the wrong side of female empowerment saying: “as female athletes that’s not what makes our bodies amazing, it’s our arms, legs, abs, backs, and mental strength… women’s sports need to move away from what we look like and towards what we are doing in the sport.” A critique supported by research from Sport England’s research findings: 63% of women who see toned bodies on social media reported diminished self-esteem. Brands often struggle to hit the delicate mark between giving consumers something to aspire to, without overshooting and demotivating consumers instead.

So why did the campaign do so well compared with its successor ‘#FearlessFemininity’? Firstly, its themes of women doing household tasks in sexy lingerie is uncomfortably close to “male gaze” for many female consumers. Whilst completing a 100m sprint in lace is no more comfortable than gardening in lingerie, the ‘We Play To Win’ perfectly captured the (selfish), dedication of athleticism which provides a strong sense of self for many women.

By the same token, Savage X Fenty (SXF) has been celebrated as one of the most successful lingerie movements in recent years. Established by Rhianna with a unique ambassador campaign encapsulating the most popular influencers. A rise in open castings on Instagram, using stories and competitions provide thousands with exciting opportunities. SXF created a platform for winners to be long-term ambassadors, part of a growing ‘Savage Family’ somewhat like Victoria Secrets roster of ‘Angels’. SXF has taken brand-consumer content engagement beyond the typical in-feed or story repost, successfully taping into the intimate “lifestyle” elements of lingerie advertising. Their ambassador programme demonstrates unapologetic commitment to give all women (including trans women) visibility.

Throwing exclusivity to the wind has proved profitable for SXF in creating a positive brand image with consumers, poised to become a front runner in the global lingerie market that’s expected to hit $325 billion by 2025. The SXF Fashion Shows are almost second in status to the iconic VS Shows, the SXF Vol. 2 Show brought lingerie and movement together in daring ways, novel to the runway causing the collection to sell out in hours.

Sometimes, brands can make a gross oversight when diversifying their campaigns, demonstrated by the slow demise of VS. Consumers struggled to engage with their knee-jerk inclusion of plus size women in campaigns after years of ignoring calls for inclusivity and intersectional representation. During the Vol.2 Show a song including an Islamic hadith was played, despite having used the same track in 2017 and received similar backlash. This music offended millions of viewers, however, SXF’s ongoing commitment diverse representation paired with Rihanna’s swift response on social media repaired much of the damage to brand image.

When paralleled with the success of AP ‘We Play To Win’ or Sport England’s 2015 & 2020 ‘This Girl Can’, it is unsurprising SXF’s new age, the dynamic show resonated strongly with modern women seeking to explore and define their sexuality without shame. It struck that delicate balance between aspirational messaging, movement and diversity.

Agent Provocateur and SXF have a vested interest in penetrating women’s lifestyles and how they see their gender, sexuality and motivation to explore these subjects for the longevity of their brands. Every campaign is a statement by the brands on where they place themselves on certain issues.

Diversity works, advancing inclusion supports growth for both brand and consumer. The status-quo remains: sex sells, but women respond to aspirational themes and imagery in advertising. There is a duty of brands to respectfully motivate and connect with women using genuine representation whilst avoiding haphazard instances of diversity. A willingness to relearn femininity in tandem with their consumers can go a long way for positive brand image and loyalty.

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