March Trend Exploration: The Changing Face of Women in Advertising and Creativity

by Adobe Stock Team

posted on 03-15-2017

It’s Women’s History Month and we’ve got our eye on how the images of women in stock are changing, and how those changes reflect deeper shifts in marketing and advertising.

As we reported earlier this month, searches for women are rising across the Adobe Stock collection — they’re up 39% year-over-year (YoY). And searches that seek women as the protagonist of the image are 1.8 times more common than similar searches for men. With queries for women up overall, we decided to dive deeper into the numbers (our aggregated, anonymous data for over 450 million Adobe Stock searches in the last year) to learn more about the types of images people looked for.

Some stubborn stereotypes stick around, but there’s evolution, too.

Our research turned up some some interesting trends: Searches for one-dimensional women (for example, a search like “attractive woman”) were down 43% YoY. Instead, we saw a whopping 500% increase in searches for multidimensional women — searches with several terms in addition to “woman” or “female.” Among these complex queries, we saw a 633% increase in searches for images of women who were both “sexy” and “strong,” and a 645% increase in searches for “sexy” and “symbolic” women. Other categories with a major bump included “sexy” plus “authority,” and “symbolic,” “sexy,” and “strong.”

This data seems to reflect a lot about how women are represented visually, especially in advertising. Last spring, the New York Times talked to women in the ad industry and discovered that the sexism of the “Mad Men” era isn’t too far in the rear view mirror. While women now make up 50 percent of the advertising industry, only 11 percent of creative directors are women.

And, according to the Times, women inside the industry think this has a big impact on the images in ads: “They recalled times when they were the only woman in meetings with both co-workers and clients. Some pointed to the ads themselves as examples of how the industry’s sexism manifested itself beyond office walls.” This might help explain why “sexy” remains a top search concept, even as searches for women grow and diversify.

But, while sexism may still be alive and influential in advertising, we also think the increasing complexity of searches for women’s images reflects a shift toward stronger portrayals of women. A new film, “10 from 50,” suggests the same. It’s a review of ten British ads over the last 50 years, meant to show how images of women in marketing are changing. The film’s creator, former ad exec Lindsey Clay, told The Guardian, about her findings: Women’s roles in advertising have always been defined more narrowly than men’s roles, and women’s looks have long been central, but changes are happening. It’s now rare to see an image of a scantily clad woman as a means to sell a car or furniture, and gender roles are becoming more flexible, especially with an increase in men nurturing children.

Feminist ads kick old ideas to the curb.

These changes may seem like baby steps, but Clay also notes a newer genre of unapologetically feminist advertising campaigns. Over a decade ago, Dove launched its acclaimed series of advertisements featuring images of real women. And a recent series of ads by Always re-appropriates the phrase “like a girl” to celebrate young women’s strength and determination, and to help girls keep confidence in their athletic abilities. “It made a welcome change from seeing scientists in labs pouring test tubes of blue liquid, or girls on roller skates in tight white hot pants,” Clay told The Guardian.

For another strong signal that changes are afoot, consider some of the high-profile, stereotype-busting ads we’ve seen in the first two-and-a-half months of 2017: featured women athletes from Arab countries, Audi wondered about equal pay and status for women, and GE asked what the world would be like if we treated female scientists the way we treat celebrities. (Check out this Entrepreneur articlefor more thought-provoking ads from early 2017.)

Women aren’t just women, they’re symbols of something bigger.

When we looked into our data, we found something else that we think is a sign of the times. Artists and advertisers searched more for symbolic, iconic, or artistic representations of women (an increase of 43 percent YoY), while searches for photorealistic female images were down 45 percent YoY.

Is this one way that designers and advertisers are grappling with evolving ideas about women and gender? Are they trying to represent conceptual shifts? The most recent surge of feminist ads seems to suggest yes, but more time will tell. Our hunch is that, as more high-profile, feminist-minded ad campaigns roll out, we’ll see growing demand for Stock images that shatter stereotypes and provide new ways to conceptualize gender in a fast-changing world.

See images from Adobe Stock’s top female Contributors in our dedicated gallery.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Diversity & Inclusion, Photography

Products: Stock