Annie Leibowitz for M & S

Annie Leibovitz for M & S

So Marks & Spencer’s released their latest celeb-heavy advertising campaign for their Autumn/Winter clothing line. Expertly titled ‘Leading Ladies,’ the big sales-busting hook comes in the form of role models for the contemporary woman.

Fine. Beautifully shot in quintessentially British surroundings – i.e. a grey London skyline, a drawing room and damp fields – modern British female icons such as drama Dame Helen Mirren, songstress Ellie Goulding and contemporary artist Tracey Emin tout the latest dowdy suit dresses and jazzy coats.

Annie Leibowitz for M & S

Annie Leibovitz for M & S

The following week proved difficult for the cult British label, as social media quickly saturated with divided opinions regarding the ad. But not with the usual gripes: too skinny, not enough diversity, or in historian and TV personality Mary Beard’s case, not enough ‘grey’. This time, the hubbub surrounded Marketing Chief Steven Sharpall’s choice of catchphrase for the whole shebang: ‘womanism’. As in, like, it’s not feminist, it’s woooomanist. Clever clogs. Oh, did we mention it was also shot by Annie Leibovitz? *whispers* ‘she’s a lesbian, you know.’

Annie Leibovitz for M & S

Annie Leibovitz for M & S

The whole thing lacks depth and true inspiration. As women, why can’t we be inspired by great men and the women dominating traditionally masculine roles, like Marissa Meyer, Yahoo!’s ball-busting CEO. M&S’ ad smacks of lazy rolodex surfing based on the assumption that women should feel inspired by women ‘who dun good at women things’ – music, fashion, art and the like.

Unfortunately for M&S, all that money, effort, and celebrity jazz-handing still failed to reverse slumping fashion sales.

But perhaps we are being a bit harsh on poor old M&S, after all, there are far worse offenders out there – remember that tasteless debacle with Bic and its ‘For Her’ range of pink and purple pens? Take a look at the backlash in Amazon’s customer review section for some lols. Or Samsung’s Tweeting about ‘all a girl needs’ with a pic of their latest notebook surrounded by makeup, jewellery, perfume and other girly essentials. Oh Samsung, how did you know?


Even more recently we’ve been lucky enough to bathe in the sleazy glory that is Agent Provocateur’s latest promo. In this one, the old boyhood fantasy of x-ray specs comes to life. When our hunky Italian hero dons a pair of glasses at (what seems like a velvet sex party) he finds *gasp* that he can see through women’s clothes to the expensive underwear beneath. Sneaky, sneaky. After passing about 25 bare, malnourished arses, a couple of orgies, and a lap dance for good measure, our protagonist gets awoken from his dream by Javier Bardem in a builder’s uniform.

Oh wait, it was directed by Penelope Cruz did you say? Well she’s a woman. Ok, so it’s fine then. It’s empowering.

And perhaps Benefit deserves some grief. Peddling its best-selling mascara, the San Fran beauty brand roped in a Jersey Shore cast member alongside some other well-endowed dudes to shower some lustful ladies with cosmetic ejaculate. I kid you not. According to Portal A, who helped put the ad together it was ‘intended to break the mould of traditional beauty advertising.’

Brands really are struggling at the moment to get it right. Unsurprisingly the brands that ARE getting it right normally have a rather *ahem* more intimate connection with its female consumers. Feminine hygiene brands are incredibly successful at understanding how to make a joke out of a horrible monthly occurrence and forming an important bond with their fans based on mutual understanding of the horribleness.

Brands are shedding the hush-hush sensibility of traditional ‘blue liquid’ advertising in favour of honest, funny and knowing narratives. New US-based femmie brand Hello Flo hit the mark in a YouTube ad for its monthly delivery care package aimed at teenage girls. Honour a slightly aggressive American camp nerd with the ‘red badge of courage’ and you’ve got a viral hit with a hilarious-cause-it’s-true brand message.

Bodyform’s video response to a witty quasi-complaint by a male fan(?) on Facebook opened up a similar discussion back in October last year. One particular line of the video summed up it’s standpoint on humorous honesty: ‘blood coursing from our uteri like a crimson landslide.’ I’ll be damned if that’s not the sassiest thing I’ve ever heard from Brand. Well done. Ten points to Bodyform.

But, as is becoming increasingly more obvious, most brands don’t really know how to market to women without offending, patronising or just downright pissing them off. It’s as if women have suddenly become this scary, alien consumer group that is hard to appease. The Jabba-The-Hutt of marketing demographics, as it were.

Like M&S’ Steven Sharp, trend forecasters, marketing and advertising agencies are spending a lot of money and a lot of time ‘ideating’ on fancy label to slap on this supposedly brand-spanking-new group of female spenders. ‘Womenomics’ and ‘Future Females’, or perhaps even ‘Warrior Women’ are going to be defining the landscape of marketing for the next few years, but will we ever reach that ever-elusive gender neutrality? Computer says (probably) no.

Words by Lisa Payne




Agent Provocateur, Annie Leibovitz, Benefit, Ellie Goulding, Helen Mirren, Hello Flo, Lisa Payne, Marks & Spencer, Tracey Emin,