How Advertising Can Make Brazil Less Sexist

How Advertising Can Make Brazil Less Sexist

Men and women drinking and dancing during the celebrations of the "Boi Bumba" Amazon Carnival, Parintins, Brazil. Skol advertisements seen in the background

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Why you should care

Because women’s wallets might change a country. 

In early 2015, as Brazilians prepared for Carnival, Skol, a popular beer, released confetti-adorned outdoor ads that proclaimed, “I forgot ‘no’ at home.” The tagline struck a nerve in Brazil, where 1 in 3 women has been the victim of sexual assault, just ahead of a holiday during which reports of sexual violence have historically spiked.

But the ad received an edit courtesy of Priscila Ferrari, an advertising employee, and Mila Alves, a journalist. The two 20-somethings posted photos of themselves in front of their spray-painted addition: “I brought my ‘never.’ ” The post went viral. A representative from Skol tells OZY that the ad “no longer speaks to the values of our company.”

Sex sells, and few countries sell sex better than Brazil’s $10 billion ad industry. Thong-clad women adorn postcards and guidebooks. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen is one of the country’s best-known exports. “Brazil has seen a ‘feminist spring’ over the past two years,” says Mari Cordeiro, project leader at Think Eva, a feminist advertising consultancy. That pushback has been in response to endemic violence against women, which some say is spurred on by the ad industry. Now, feminists are calling for an end to advertising’s sexism — and the companies’ bottom lines might compel them to listen.

It doesn’t matter if you make an ad campaign with a message of empowerment if you don’t practice that in your company.

Ana Paula Passarelli, College of Marketing and Advertising

Sixty-five percent of Brazilian women do not identify with the way they are represented in ads, according to a 2013 study by São Paulo-based polling firm Data Popular and the Instituto Patrícia Galvão, a think tank. And, also according to the study, those women make 85 percent of household purchasing decisions; women’s incomes increased by 83 percent during Brazil’s boom decade (2003-13), while men’s incomes increased by only 45 percent during that same period.

Rebranding, then, is good business. “If you understand your audience a little better and make ads that are less stereotype-ridden, people will identify and approach your brand,” says Maria Guimarães, a co-founder of 65/10, a feminist brand consulting group. While Don Drapers still reign over the industry — women comprise only 10 to 20 percent of advertising creatives in Brazil — Guimarães says that agencies are increasingly seeking out female creatives to join their teams, in hopes that more women at the table could prevent gaffes like Skol’s.

A handful of beauty companies have begun positioning themselves as feminist brands. Avon Brasil recently released a series of commercials featuring feminist celebrities such as rapper Karol Conka, who declares, “I’m my own source of inspiration.” A page on the company’s website offers Portuguese definitions of key feminist terms like “gaslighting” and “mansplaining.” Natura, a major cosmetics brand, responds to ageism and unrealistic beauty standards with taglines like “The only thing that’s getting old are stereotypes.”

Social media is the outlet for many who see problems with ads. Last year, Bayer released a Cannes-awarded aspirin ad making light of surreptitiously filming one’s sexual partners — it reads “Don’t worry babe, I’m not filming this. MOV.” Its premiere coincided with the brutal gang rape of a teenager in Rio de Janeiro that was filmed and posted to Twitter; against that backdrop, the ads were panned on social media. Bayer pulled the campaign. A company representative wrote to OZY that “respect for all genders, especially women, is a value present in all our actions.”

The gender conversation is intersecting with one about race: According to a recent study by the agency Heads, 90 percent of women featured in Brazilian ads are white, though 53 percent of Brazilians consider themselves Black or mixed race. Cordeiro says that Brazil’s identity is premised on these images, as it exports a narrative of a “hypersexual Carnival ‘mulata’ ” or the “beautiful ‘Girl From Ipanema’ ” (the song rhapsodizes about a fair-skinned woman from an upscale neighborhood).

Brazilian companies aren’t the first to try out “femvertising.” In the 1920s, U.S. cigarette brand Lucky Strike encouraged women to smoke in public, calling cigarettes “torches of freedom.” In India, United Colors of Benetton’s “United by Half” campaign asks women to sign a pledge to “claim your equal half.” Some attempts fall flat: Last year, Yoplait Mexico released a commercial featuring women in a tavern singing, “Let’s toast to being women!” followed by, “We have to do Pilates, summer’s coming!” (Yoplait later apologized and pulled the ad.)

Of course, improving gender parity doesn’t start with ads, but with equal pay regardless of race or gender, says Ana Paula Passarelli, who teaches a course on marketing and gender at the College of Marketing and Advertising in São Paulo. “It doesn’t matter if you make an ad campaign with a message of empowerment if you don’t practice that in your company,” Passarelli says bluntly. Cordeiro notes, “We have to be careful to not ‘cause wash.’ ”

Now, Skol wants in on femvertising. This year, the company released a video on International Women’s Day declaring, “The world has changed. And so has Skol.” In the video, six female illustrators repurpose old Skol ads: a bikini-clad blonde was redrawn with red hair and a T-shirt that reads “The Future Is Female”; a thong-toting model gained a cape covered in feminist symbols. Even Carnival is receiving a makeover. For years, Globo, Brazil’s dominant TV station, ran Carnival commercials featuring a samba-dancing “Globeleza” — a mixed-race woman wearing little more than body paint and glitter. This year, she got some clothes.

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