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Madison Avenue Giants Press for Better Portrayals of Women on TV

Like the movies, TV has long been obsessed with youth. But on a recent broadcast in January, CBS’ daytime program “The Talk” put the spotlight on a woman who was 89 years of age — and still working as a model. “Is there anyone in your life who is not a celebrity who you wish the world could see?” asked Julie Chen, one of the show’s co-hosts.

If some of the nation’s biggest advertisers have their way, TV viewers may start to see a lot of women they never imagined surfacing in traditional programming and commercials.

The “Talk” segment (pictured, above) is just one example of agreements being struck between some of the nation’s biggest entertainment companies and an influential group of sponsors to present more accurate portrayals of women and girls by the year 2020. The Association of National Advertisers, an influential trade organization, has formed a group of blue-chip advertisers — Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Unilever, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola among them — representing 1,000 different brands and more than $40 billion of ad spending on U.S. TV to seek better representation of women in ads and TV programs.

With that much money backing up the effort, it’s hard to turn them down. “We are definitely turning our dollars toward places that promote gender equality,” says Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble, one of the industry’s most influential advertisers, in an interview.

The initiative — dubbed #SeeHer — wasn’t born of the recent “#MeToo” movement in which women are demanding justice for years of mistreatment and sexual harassment, but it is coming of age as that cultural shift widens. CBS and 21st Century Fox are among the companies that have agreed to run program segments or public-service announcements that call attention to how women are portrayed. Viacom on Feb. 1 kicked off a year-long series of public-service announcements aimed to show young women they can achieve career goals. Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Walmart are among the sponsors. The #SeeHer effort “has become this critical mission,” says Sean Moran, head of sales for Viacom. “It’s going to continue to ramp up.” A + E Networks has been publishing a monthly newsletter for 5,000 marketing executives that discusses data and trends supporting TV for women. NBCUniversal expects “activations and integrations across its portfolio” related to the effort to surface in the future, a company spokeswoman said.

More may be in the offing. The marketers come backed not just by money. They are also using data to determine which programs best align with their goals. They are working with a calibration they call a “GEM Score,” or “gender equality measure,” that examines factors ranging from whether female characters are presented respectfully in stories to how much speaking time they have compared with male counterparts. Many of AT&T’s customers want to see women “portrayed as women of authority — confident, strong, successful, compassionate,” says Fiona Carter, AT&T’s Chief Brand Officer, in an interview. “Not fearful. Not depressed. Not in the shadow of men.”

The executive says she is looking more closely at programs like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” the CW’s “Supergirl,” and NBC’s “This Is Us.” She is also intrigued by recent moves at NBC’s “Today,” which features an all-female team of lead anchors for the first time in its history as well as the first female executive producer of its first two hours. P&G’s Pritchard cited the syndicated “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and CBS’ “Madam Secretary” as programs that might rank well in “GEM” analysis.

In some cases, the advertisers may press for ad deals based in part on the new measure as well as a network’s ability to devise promotions calling attention to female portrayals. “We have begun discussion with the networks and the cable companies about adding GEM Scores as a criterion for our media buys,” says AT&T’s Carter. “It’s not the unique criteria — we are also looking for price value, the right viewers, innovative ad formats and the right data around the program we choose.” She adds: ”The networks understand that it’s a priority, and we have begun to move dollars increasing our presence in the right kind of programs for ‘GEM Scores.’”

One TV executive says the new scores could be effective. “We want to make sure our own ‘GEM Scores’ are strong, and if they are not, we want to make sure we tweak along the way,” says Amy Baker, executive vice president of client strategy and insight at A +E Networks, in an interview. Another expects more sectors to take up the cause. “I think that it is a very important issue, and in the environment and the world we are in today, it should resonate not only with the advertising industry, but with across all industries,” says Jo Ann Ross, President and Chief Advertising Revenue Officer of CBS Corp.

The growing Madison Avenue emphasis on the issue comes as more advertisers are aligning their companies with causes supported by the rising generation of consumers. Procter & Gamble, for example, recently struck a deal with ABC that called for the characters in “Black-ish” to talk about a two-minute film the consumer-products giant released last year to spotlight the discussions black parents have with their children to prepare them for racial bias. Walmart, which is also a supporter of #SeeHer, recently announced it would run three commercials during ABC’s Oscars broadcast that spotlight women filmmakers, and said it would partner with Women in Film Los Angeles, an advocacy organization that seeks parity and advancement for women in the entertainment industry.

“There is a movement within younger consumers,” says AT&T’s Carter. “They don’t want to know just what you make, but they want to know what makes up your company.

The depiction of women in media has long spurred controversy. Activists have for years shone a spotlight on beauty ads in women’s magazines, suggesting the pictures of skinny models in jeans and makeup create unrealistic expectations for young girls. The #SeeHer effort got its start examining the way women are portrayed in commercials, and has even examined whether using a female voice-over might create a better impression than one that follows tradition and taps a male voice., says Stephen Quinn, a former chief marketing officer of Walmart and who heads the Alliance for Family Entertainment, the ANA sub-group that has organized #SeeHer. Some advertisers have begun to catch on. Unilever’s Dove has for several years captured attention with ads that use women of various shapes and sizes, not models. The CVS pharmacy chain said last month it would stop retouching models in print ads for its in-store beauty products by 2020.

The Alliance for Family Entertainment has a history of pressing TV executives, and not just on price and policy. The industry organization launched in September of 1988 calling for the development of more programs that parents and kids could watch together. Dubbed the “Family Friendly Programming Forum” and organized by former Johnson & Johnson ad chief Andrea Alstrup, the group has helped bring to air programs including “Gilmore Girls,” “Chuck,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Friday Night Lights.”

To be certain, there’s no guarantee audiences will embrace any particular TV program, no matter the intentions behind it. TV networks have in recent months aired some very daring series that offered nuanced and bracing portrayals of women, but did not continue beyond their initial cycle. Despite positive reviews, Amazon canceled the series “Good Girls Revolt,” which took a look at female journalists and researchers working at a newsweekly in the late 1960s (to be sure, Amazon does not accept traditional commercials for its series). MTV did not pick up the series “Sweet/Vicious,” which centered on two college-aged women fighting back against sexual assault — often in violent fashion — after an initial run.

The #SeeHer initiative came out of an early 2016 discussion between Gail Tifford, then a marketing executive at Unilever; Shelley Zalis, the founder of the OTX research firm and CEO of The Female Quotient, a consultancy; and Megan Smith, a former chief technology officer at the White House. The three were discussing gender equality at a dinner. Tifford thought of the role played by media and brought the idea to the Alliance for Family Entertainment, where Patty Kerr, a media consultant who works with the group, approached Quinn and Bob Liodice, who oversees the larger Association of National Advertisers.

The group isn’t looking to shame anyone publicly, says Quinn. Instead, it is trying to show marketers their customers think better of commercials that appear in programming featuring respectful portrayals of women and girls. “Adding rocket fuel to all of this is when marketers take control of their own media plans and move dollars to places we have proven are in their own best interest,” he says.

The networks are taking more steps forward. #SeeHer representatives have met with a wide range of CBS executives, says Ross. CBS has also aired a #SeeHer segment on its CBS Sports Network and has other plans set to surface in coming weeks. Fox Sports has been running public-service announcements alongside NFL kickoffs and pre-game coverage, college football bowl games and college basketball tip-offs. Several of the spots include appearances by Fox Sports analysts and reports. The campaign is set to run all year.

Marketers say such stuff is essential if they are to appeal to their consumers. Accurate portrayals of customers “is the best way to deliver our message, the best way to connect deeply with our customers,” says AT&T’s Carter. “About 85% of buying decisions are made by women,” says P&G’s Pritchard. “That in and of itself is a reason.”

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