Women’s World Cup 2023: The blind side of creative inclusivity

As audiences gear up for the Women’s World Cup, ads like Orange’s La Compli des Bleus are a painful reminder of the gender gap that continues to prevail in football. Viewership for the Women’s World Cup is about 1/3rd that of the men’s, as is the overall prize money for the tournament.

The athleticism on display, however, or the nail-biting moments of excitement and anticipation are dispensed in equal measure, as the subversive Orange World Cup ad makes abundantly clear.

The advertising industry will celebrate the brilliance of this World Cup ad, and it should. But this ad is the exception, not the rule – an anecdote, not a trend line.

Much like sustainable messaging, which spikes every year during Earth Day but fades into the background for the other 364 days of the year, inclusive and representative advertising appears to not only be tied to key signaling moments but also to be decreasing over time.

It’s clear then, that the Women’s World Cup marks a key moment in the calendar as women break down gender stereotypes on the world stage but can the same be said for the advertising that runs alongside it?

Anastasia Leng, CEO and founder of CreativeX shares how brands can take advantage of key calendar moments, making sure their ads – for the World Cup and beyond – are representative of the consumers watching them.

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Casting is getting better, but portrayal is getting worse

Creative X’s recent analysis of more than 10,000 ads aired in 52 countries and supported by £77.5m ($100m) in ad spend discovered that women are still being portrayed in increasingly stereotypical ways.

There are two elements to creating more representative ads: the people you cast and the stories you tell about them.

Many marketers and brands have begun the hard task of making their advertising content more representative, both in front of and behind the lens. Companies like Unilever have kicked off the Unstereotype alliance, vowing to remove stereotypical portrayals from their ads by 2025, and have galvanized an entire industry to not only do better, but also to do more.

We’re getting better at casting more women, but the storylines we feature them in increase the stereotyped tropes that we’re trying so hard to move away from. Our analysis shows that the presence of women in domestic or family settings has increased to 66% in 2022, compared to 31% in 2021.

Simultaneously, the depiction of women in professional and leadership settings declined by over half from 16% in 2021 to only 7% in 2022. The 7% of ads that featured women in professional settings was supported by just 4.7% of total ad spend.

When it comes to sport – World Cup aside – male characters were featured in physical settings (doing sport, exercise etc.) twice as much as female characters. To make matters worse, spend behind female characters displaying athletic characteristics fell by 93% across 2021-22.

This in itself is not surprising: when we try to do more of anything, issues emerge that require new processes, tools, and ways of working to be established. Fixing one problem (casting more people from different backgrounds in our ads) has created another (telling progressive stories about them), but that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made.

Creative data for the (World Cup) win

The good news is that technology now gives us a way of tracking progress made on this deeply important but also adds to the deeply complicated issue.

By using computer vision technology, we can extract creative data out of every image or video we produce and start to measure, at scale, the creative decisions that we make. Specifically, we can determine not only how our casting choices vary by things like sex, skin tone, and age, but also how the types of situations we cast people in vary by the above dimensions.

The even better news is that I have yet to see a research study that fails to demonstrate a positive link between more representative ads and better performance, either at the business level (stock price), brand level (brand growth), or ad level (better view-through, conversion, etc).

But the pitch is already set for this World Cup: the ads are locked and loaded, and while some brands make score the equivalent of a free penalty kick with a great one-time ad, it won’t win them the tournament unless they commit to the cause.

A scoreboard that paves the way towards a solution

I’m convinced that no single, global answer to addressing the representation gap in our advertising exists, but I’m bullish that there is a framework by which we can meaningfully accelerate our progress, and that’s through measurement.

How many people actually know what percentage of their ads feature different types of people, let alone how those people are being depicted? (And if you answered yes because you sampled a small subset of your ads and extrapolated from that, I’d respectfully argue that’s not “knowing” — that’s an anecdote).

If the idea of your CMO, CEO, or board asking you about your own organisation’s measurable progress on this issue fills you with dread, it should – because it’s only a matter of time before they ask.

If we care about increasing representative advertising,  we need to know where we’re starting from and how much progress we’ve got to make, a yardstick that will vary by brand and by region. Most of us are afraid to look inside our own closet for fear of what we might find.

Having analysed thousands of ads for representation, it’s true that most brands have a lot of work to do, but it’s equally true that many are making meaningful strides year over year – and this World Cup is certainly helping that.

Unless we know our baseline and where and how we’re falling short, we won’t be able to meaningfully improve, and creative data is the technology-powered measurement system that can facilitate change, instill accountability, and highlight important moments of achievement, both on the pitch and off.

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