Audio Tour: What Women Want? UK Exhibition

Explore 100 years of marketing to women, as we discuss some of the standout examples from the last century.
25 February 2019
what women want
kirsty cooke

Head of Digital Content

Get in touch

2018 marked the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. This was the beginning of a new era, when brands started to see women as consumers in their own right. Kantar created the What Women Want? Exhibition to explore the last 100 years of marketing to women, and to celebrate this ongoing journey of emancipation, engagement and empowerment. Listen to this audio tour to explore a century of outstanding examples and milestones in marketing to women.


Welcome to this special episode of Future Proof, the marketing podcast from Saïd Business School, Oxford University, and Kantar, the marketing insights and consulting company. This episode accompanies the WhatWomenWant? Exhibition, created by Kantar to celebrate and explore the last 100 years of marketing to women in the UK.

[1910s & 1920s – Women’s Enfranchisement]

Women’s struggle for democratic equality kicked off properly in the early 1900s. Adverts promoting the suffragette movement relied on familiar colour schemes (such as the green, purple and white of the Women’s Social and Political Union) to boost awareness. A poster here promotes Votes for Women, the official paper of the WSPU, led by the Pankhursts. It shows a very feminine depiction of a woman – in deliberate contrast to ugly portrayals commonly used by the anti-suffragette movement, who tried to portray the desire for the vote as unfeminine and dangerous. Sylvia Pankhurst designed much of the merchandise and clearly understood the power of branding.

Another ad here is from Raleigh bikes.The bicycle, which became more commoditised during the 1910s, encapsulated freedom. As one woman said in 1899, ‘The bicycle is in truth the women’s emancipator.’ For the first time, women could get around unchaperoned and indeed the suffragettes relied heavily on bicycles to spread the word around their cause.

With the First World War starting in 1914, there was a big push for women to take over from men in the workforce, from agriculture to transport. In fact, Maida Vale became the first London Underground station to be staffed entirely by women when it opened its doors in 1915.

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act eventually granted the vote to women over 30 years old who met a property qualification.

In the 1920s, women’s participation in sport really grew, with the UK hosting the Women’s Olympiad in 1924. Vimto, launched as ‘Vim Tomic’ in 1908, celebrated this new generation of sportswomen. It places a tennis player at the centre of its campaign shown here. Promoting women’s fitness for fitness’ sake rather than for beauty, the slogan simply states: ‘Keeps You Fit’ – refreshingly genderless language.

In 1928, women finally gained equal voting rights with men.

[1930s & 1940s – Women at Work & Home]

The Great Depression of the 1930s made this decade a sombre one. Progress for women was held back, with high unemployment leading to more competition for jobs and a woman’s place seen as being firmly ‘in the home’. Only a third of women held paid jobs, and wages were very low. The civil service, the education sector and nursing all operated a ‘marriage bar’, which meant women had to resign when they married.

But old agitations did continue. As you can see, skirts got shorter and so did hair. Women appeared in trousers in Vogue for the first time in 1939 (although as we see here, Jaeger was advertising trousers to women slightly before that).

The Second World War (from 1939 to 1945) saw women called up for war work, giving them a renewed sense of purpose and power. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ (an iconic image of a woman in a spotted headscarf flexing her muscles) originated in the US, but was replicated in Europe. It represented the women who were working in factories and shipyards; there were also women breaking codes, tracking battleships and driving trucks.

But while many were working 10-hour days, they were still expected to run the family home… and, when war was over, they were expected to return there.

The divorce rate shot up after the end of the war. And, of course, many husbands didn’t come back. So, while a lot of women were ushered back into domesticity, many kept working or indeed set up their own businesses. Advertising began to address women as self-determining. The advert here from Lloyds Bank, for example, offers advice for women wishing to establish a business; it promotes the fact that it gives single and married women ‘the same services as male customers enjoy’. Despite language that we might baulk at today, it respects that women have increasing financial autonomy.

[1950s & 1960s – Women’s Liberation]

In the 1950s, laws were reformed around equal pay (for teachers and civil servants) and in relation to sexual offences, crucially highlighting that a lack of consent equated to rape. The 1958 Life Peerages act allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time.

The 1950s also saw a very glamorous woman appearing inthis advert for retailer Harrods, which proclaims ‘There’s nobody else like me.’ Celebrating individuality is discussed at length here, with the shopper in question clearly making more independent choices about her purchases. Whether short, tall, plump or slim – ‘Whatever my type, I’m catered for at Harrods,’ she says.

The 1960s were, famously, a time of sexual liberation for many women, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill (in 1961) and the decriminalisation of abortion (on certain grounds) in 1967 giving women far more control over their sex lives and reproductive health.

The mini skirt’s meteoric rise coincided with the women’s movement of the era – it became a symbol of liberation, promoted by designers including Mary Quant, and worn by feminists such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. This item allowed women to feel daring and provocative and part of a revolutionary fashion tribe, freeing them from dressing like their mothers. Quant claimed it was the girls on the street – specifically, Kings Road – who invented the miniskirt. ‘I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes,’ she said, ‘In which you could move, in which you could run and jump… and we would make them the length the customer wanted.’

The Bass beer advert featured here shows men and women sharing an intimate moment of parity, with a glass of beer each. They look relaxed and comfortable, mirroring each other’s pose, with the women’s head affectionately resting on the man’s shoulder. They are depicted as equals both enjoying a beer, a reward for a hard day at work. But of course it was not until 1982 that it was illegal to refuse a woman service at a bar!

[1970s & 1980s – Second Wave Feminism]

The 1970s was when feminism really entered the public discourse. In 1970, Britain’s first national Women’s Liberation Conference was held, and the Equal Pay Act was introduced. The 1970 Miss World competition was interrupted by female protesters. By 1971, 4,000 women were taking part in the first Women’s Liberation march in London; 1972 saw the ground-breaking launch of feminist magazine Spare Rib.

1975 was declared Year of the Woman by the United Nations, with legislation making it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training. Mandatory maternity provision was introduced, and it became illegal to sack women because they were pregnant. In 1977, International Women’s Day was formalised as an annual event by the UN General Assembly. More career options became open to women… from a welder to UK Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister of the UK in 1979.

Charlie fragrance adverts of the time almost always showed a woman in motion – striding purposefully like the woman here, and echoing a growing sentiment that, for women, the sky was the limit. Joyful and hopeful, Charlie was probably the first “lifestyle” fragrance: an affordable, youthful, daytime scent marketed to the woman wearing it, rather than her partner.

The Eighties saw a push for equal representation of women in the House of Commons. The first National Black Feminist conference was held in 1984, and in 1987 Diane Abbott became the first black woman member of Parliament. In 1988, Julie Hayward from Birkenhead won the first ever ‘equal pay for equal value’ case.

Working lives and the economy were experiencing a period of change. Women were finally able to apply for a loan or credit in their own names. The advert featured here from Trustee Savings Banks, while it seems patronising by today’s standards, came at a time when women were just starting to enjoy true financial freedom and exert their independence. Although the woman is still pictured in partnership with a man, she is dressed in business wear. The ‘girl’s guide to value for money’ being advertised showed women not just how to spend, but how to save, and how to truly profit from a life in the workplace.

The National Rail ad from 1984 shows how attitudes were changing around age. ‘You don’t have to be old to get a Senior Citizen’s Railcard,’ it says. ‘You just have to be 60.’

Older women were beginning to exert power and influence, and advertising began to reflect this. In fact, apart from the fashion choices of the very elegant lady pictured, this ad would seem progressive even today.

[1990s & 2000s – Normal Bodies?]

The 1990s saw the rapid spread of the internet. Married women were now taxed separately from their husbands, Betty Boothroyd became speaker of the House of Commons, and the Spice Girls burst on to the scene, shouting about Girl Power. In 1993, the United Nations affirmed that violence against women violated their human rights, and in 1994 rape in marriage was made a crime. In the general election of 1997, 101 women were elected as Labour MPs – the highest number ever.

From a marketing perspective, the 90s continued to challenge what the ‘ideal’ woman looked like. The hugely influential ‘Ruby’ campaign from The Body Shop came at a time when supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell truly ruled the world. A red-haired doll with Rubenesque proportions reclining on a chaise longue, Ruby challenged the stereotypes of the time – challenging the idea that female beauty equated to dress size. ‘There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels,’ she says with an indifferent smile, ‘And only 8 who do.’ Consumers could see themselves reflected in this campaign, and it began a debate around self-esteem and beauty standards that we are still having today.

Moving into the 2000s, the roles of men and women were shifting. Lads’ mags hit the mainstream, and the objectification of women was still normalised. While Wonderbra adverts through the 90s had tried to poke fun at this culture, the 2005 advert from Nike featured here fully subverts this. Track and field athlete Lauren Fleshman defiantly stares into the camera, challenging the overt sexism in the sports industry. Positioned front and centre, with the background blurred and the focus on her, she demands that you look, listen and study her: only then will you understand her as a woman. She disrupts the male gaze by saying, as a bold headline, ‘Objectify Me’. This campaign also shows the importance of insights – in the lengthy copy, Lauren commends Nike for listening to athletes like her, and for understanding that trainers for women, for example, should be designed with women’s feet and bodies in mind (and not just be smaller pink versions of the male shoe).

In 2004, Unilever launched the Real Beauty campaign from Dove to change the dialogue around what it means to be beautiful. This is one of the most discussed ‘success stories’ in marketing, with the follow-up videoEvolution(in 2006) going viral before going viral was really a thing. The example featured here of a woman laughing is actually from 2017, and is rare in showing a woman of colour front and centre, and in showing genuine mirth.

[2010s – Celebrating Diversity]

In the current decade, there has been a shift towards celebrating more diverse body types in the media. On social media, it’s easier and easier to see the diversity of everyday users, although augmenting your identity has also become highly possible. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, there has been a keen awareness of a major shift when it comes to gender parity, the treatment of women in the workplace, and sexual dynamics.

In 2011, Jude Kelly launched the first Women of the World Festival in London, and in 2012 Laura Bates set up ‘Everyday Sexism’, a campaign to raise awareness of the acts of sexism women experience on a daily basis.

More and more brands are ‘walking the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to representation, diversity, inclusion and equality – going beyond tokenism and actually placing these values centrally in the organisation.

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign launched in 2015 with a focus on ‘street-casting’ of ordinary women and using taglines that addressed the anxieties of real women, such as ‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’. Reports suggest that these ads, celebrating active women without focusing on how they look, encouraged 1.6 million women to exercise more.

A recent theme has been to shine a light on women in history who have been overlooked. This simple piece of visual storytelling from Stabilo, the highlighter company,seamlessly links a strong idea with their product, as it literally highlights women who were overshadowed by their male peers in the fields of science, maths and politics. Look at the old photographs and spot the wives, friends and colleagues who deserved Nobel prizes they never received!

Busting stigmas has also been popular. Feminist groups have been critical of hair removal ads for years for not ‘daring’ to show any hair at all, but here we see razor brand Billie changing the narrative. Showing in their ads that hair removal could be a choice, rather than a necessity, and reflecting the idea that female beauty could be about expression, instead of expectation, Billie changed the conventions of their category, and offered a new form of female aesthetic freedom.

River Island has been one of the brands turning stereotypes on their head, thanks to its ‘Labels are for clothes’ campaign, championing diversity, confidence and non-conformity. In the campaign, models of varying race, body shapes and abilities wear the clothes, under slogans that play on the idea of washing instructions, such as Do Not Shrink. As gender identity is an emerging conversation in the UK, the execution we’ve chosen to display shows an androgynous model, looking assuredly at the camera, with the slogan saying100% Gender-Free. River Island has partnered with anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label as part of this campaign.

[The Future of Marketing to Women]

Whilst we have seen a lot of progress over the past 100 years, Kantar’s research found that there is still a significant commercial opportunity for brands who correctly reflect, represent and champion women.

The conversation around what it is to be a woman is moving at pace. Brands need to not only keep up with those shifts, but also anticipate them, in order to stay relevant.

That’s why we created Hold Her Gaze – a collection of works bringing to life the new principles of marketing to women. It was co-created by the Human & Cultural Practice at Kantar and the creative team at Grey London. We examined culture; learning from the dynamic dialogues around body positivity, diversity, consent, the gender pay gap, and gender fluidity. We looked at new innovations, taking a broad and category-agnostic view of the world to understand the shifting landscape of the female experience. These cultural shifts and the resulting new conversations are bought to life through six artworks and installations by Grey London.

The first theme is UNCOVER THE UNTOLD.

This large-scale photographic piece shows the iconic and globally recognisable Elvis Presley, ripped to reveal the face of the lesser known Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Despite being an influential force to music’s great and good, including Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Miranda Lambert, Tharpe had been all but written out of history. That is, until in 2017, when she was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, some 30 years after Elvis.

This space was inspired a widespread re-examining of history – a questioning of whose version of history we are being taught, and which accounts are being missed. We put it to brands to look with fresh eyes, into the stories they tell about themselves… and of women who have been overlooked.

Our second theme is NO MAN’S LAND.

This is a poster for an imaginary girls-only skate festival. It draws on the blossoming of female-only spaces, events, and member clubs like New York’s The Wing, and London’s The Allbright Club.

This is an area ripe for brands to play to, but as yet we are only seeing evidence for this in culture – with examples like Sweden’s women-only Statement festival, conceived of after the founders were fed up of being groped and harassed at music concerts.

We advised brands not to shy away from female-only narratives and to celebrate the alchemical things that can happen when women collaborate.

The third theme is I CONTAIN MULTITIUDES.

This piece features flyposters of both positive and negative words that can be used to describe a woman. It brings to life a shift from a narrow definition of what a woman should be – graceful, polite, accommodating, nurturing – to an explosion of the multiple characteristics a woman can embody. Featuring words that when applied to women are often pejorative – ‘pushy’ ‘feisty’ ‘abrasive’ ‘loud’ – we also looked at the double standard at play between the genders. We put it to brands to champion women that go against the grain in how they show up in society, and embrace a multi-faceted depiction of women.


This incredibly detailed pen and ink illustration is a portrait of SJ, creative director at Grey. The drawing shows details of her biography – from the Cannes Lions award she won, to her adoptive parents and the seaside town she grew up in. This piece was inspired by the shift in the cultural conversation around diversity is now in the mainstream, to one of intersectionality as a more authentic representation of lived experiences.

Brands must note that diversity isn’t simply a matter of race, and advising them to go beyond one-dimensional diversity box-checking.

The next theme is TRUTH TO POWER.

This piece is a denim jacket decorated with slogans, pins and patches. It brings to life the rise in activism we are seeing amongst women, particularly Millennials and Centennials. This is exemplified by gun control activist Emma Gonzales, climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and the women of all generations who have spoken out against sexism as part of the #metoo movement. Today, women are engaged with complex, cultural conversations around race, gender, politics and personal identity.

These generations care about sustainability and equality, but they will call out brands that use the aesthetics of protest to peddle their products.

The final theme is IN SYNC.

This is a piece that is inspired by the innovations in technology that are giving women greater control and autonomy over their lives, from fertility to finance. The concept is brought to life with a lightbox (to denote a smartphone) featuring a graphic design that uses visual cues of both women's health (peonies in the shape of ovaries) blended with tech and futurism. The use of symbols that represent female reproductive organs reflects a taboo-busting energy that is bubbling away – changing the conversations around women’s bodies to a more open, honest and progressive one that is in service of what women want.

By engaging with women meaningfully and understanding their priorities, brands will not only contribute to their commercial success, but to society as a whole.

Editor’s notes

This is special episode of Future Proof, the marketing podcast from Saïd Business School, Oxford University, and Kantar, the marketing insights and consulting company. This episode accompanies the WhatWomenWant? Exhibition, created by Kantar to celebrate and explore the last 100 years of marketing to women in the UK.

Quasarise by | e s c p |
Music promoted by
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Get in touch