Modern Women, Modern Ads

February 09, 1991|By Graeme Browning

After decades of pitching their products to women in fantasies where every bathroom sparkles and every detergent cleans whiter than white, U.S. companies are beginning to do an advertising about-face.

Instead of scrubbing kitchen floors on their hands and knees, women in today's print and television ads hold full-time jobs, choose day care and, sometimes, take care of their families without any visible support from a man.

Witness these examples, all developed in the last two years:

* In a magazine ad, a young woman turns to another young woman next to her and confides with a bright smile, "He's crazy about my kid. And he drinks Johnnie Walker Red."

* In another magazine ad, this time for Atlanta-based Citizens & Southern Bank, a young woman in overalls hugs a little boy at her side as she bends over her checkbook. "You may be on your own, but you're never alone," the ad assures readers.

* In a lavishly produced television commercial for United Airlines, a woman executive flies to another city for a daylong business meeting. After the meeting runs late, she makes a -- for the plane home and arrives at a day-care center in time to throw open her arms to a little girl who runs to meet her.

A drastic shift in the demographics of women consumers has contributed to the change. In 1975, only 236,000 single women with children under the age of 18 were working in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor.

By 1988, the latest year for which accurate statistics are available, the number of single working mothers in this country had mushroomed to more than 1 million.

But more than just numbers are important here, advertising executives and consultants say. Advertisers are using more contemporary images of women these days, they say, because the old stereotypes simply don't work anymore.

"It's becoming a lot more difficult for advertisers to hit the bull's-eye with women," said Carol Brady Blades, president of the Softness Group, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in marketing to women.

"First, the women's movement blasted out the old preconceived notions of who the 'woman consumer' is. Now we're in the post-women's-movement movement, where women are not turning back into their mothers but their traditional roles are still there," Ms. Blades said.

In a society where the number of women in the work force with children under age 6 has practically doubled in the last 10 years, more women than ever are juggling the "new" role of a career and the "traditional" role of mother, the experts say.

"In the old days, you'd see lots of ads for toilet paper aimed at women, and the kitchen was always the 'big picture,' " said Andrea Kaplan, spokeswoman for Lang Communications Inc., which publishes Working Woman, Working Mother and Ms. magazines.

"Today, the mother wears a business suit, the kitchen is a lot smaller, and the woman might even be cleaning it while she's talking on the phone. The message is, 'Yeah, you have to do this, but you don't have to be the perfect housewife any more.' "

Businesswomen in particular are a far more important part of the consumer market today than they were even a decade ago, consultants and advertising executives say.

In the 1970s, women business travelers "were hardly showing up at all in any of our surveys," said a spokesman for United Airlines. By the mid-1980s, women made up 25 percent of the airline's business passengers, he said.

Single women and working mothers "are part of our society dTC today. They're a lifestyle. For Johnnie Walker we find women important in our overall marketing plans," said Leo Greenland, chairman of Smith/Greenland Inc., the New York-based advertising agency that has handled the Johnnie Walker account for Schefflin & Somerset importers for 26 years.

Although advertisers traditionally have shied away from subjects with even a hint of controversy, Mr. Greenland said he has received "very favorable feedback" from the ad showing the woman exulting over finding a man who likes both her child and her favorite scotch.

"The key thing that advertisers have to get across in aiming at women today is that the message has to ring true. There's no more room for fairy tales or cartoons," Ms. Blades said.

Marketing executives at Citizens and Southern National Bank took that advice to heart when they developed a new campaign last year on the theme "Where You Belong" for the bank's branches in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

Market research showed there were "a substantial number" of single parents among the bank's potential customers, said Grant O'Neal, senior vice president for advertising.

Southern -- which merged last September with Sovran Corp. -- decided to take a straightforward approach with its appeal to single mothers. Its ad shows a young woman sitting at her own kitchen table, seeming to take a break from her day to be with her child.

The message that the bank is simply "a means to an end" is deliberate, Mr. O'Neal said.

"There are a lot of emotional issues involved in the question of what role mothers play and how we all want quality time with our children. People want financial assistance integrated into their lives, not the other way around. We realize that," Mr. O'Neal said.

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