All the Single Ladies: The Rise of the Independent Woman

Woman standing on city rooftop wearing a "Let's rock n roll" tee shirt.

Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

A Listerine print ad from the 1930s features an image of a weeping woman, along with these words: “And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever. She was often a bridesmaid, but never a bride.”
Sending the message that marriage is the ultimate goal for women (and that fresh breath can help ensure you will live “happily ever after”), many ads have traditionally played to women’s insecurities.
Today’s female consumer is nearly twice as likely to be single as she is married. With women controlling 85% of the purchasing decisions, advertisers are missing the mark to speak to a large number of consumers. In fact, nearly half of single women surveyed think that single women are “non-existent” in advertising, according to a survey by advertising agency Hill Holiday in partnership with Match.com.
Other data further supports that women are not being portrayed as they truly are: Nearly 30% of advertisements today still inaccurately or negatively portray women through some form of objectification, stereotyping or diminished character, according to a study of more than 40,000 ads and media by the ANA #SeeHer movement.
There is power in the media to help shape culture, but how do media and advertisements impact us when they’re not accurately representing women as they truly are? Thought leaders in the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions share how advertisers and media can better speak to the growing population of “single ladies”—and why it is so important.
The Rise of the Independent Woman
“When you ask men and when you ask women, ‘Who is the single woman between the ages of 30 and 44 years old?’ everyone agrees: This woman is adventurous, ambitious, assertive, confident, humorous, industrious and responsible,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and Chief Adviser at Match.com. “The zeitgeist of what this woman isn’t what the media is representing here. As an anthropologist, it’s an example of what we call culture lag, women have progressed into being something that the media hasn’t caught up with yet.”
Today, there are more single women than men. “Being single is not a life stage—we are not hanging out waiting to go through the years until we get married so it changes. It is a choice. There’s a nuance with women. We’re not this one statistic living life in one way,” says Sophie Kelly, Senior Vice President of North American Whiskeys Portfolio, Diageo.

Karen Kaplan of Hill Holiday; Alex Bruell of The Wall Street Journal; Dr. Helen Fisher of Match.com; and Sophie Kelly of Diageo in the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes Lions.

Why Aren’t Marketers Representing Independent Women?
Though single women are a huge percentage of consumers, “only 35% of women are comfortable buying a car, and only 26% of them comfortable travelling alone,” says Alex Bruell, Advertising Reporter at The Wall Street Journal. One possible reason for this is that marketers aren’t speaking to them.
“This is a forgotten, invisible, very powerful group with a lot of spending power, that is spending despite the barriers marketers put up,” says Karen Kaplan, Chairman and CEO at Hill Holliday. “Somehow they’re getting these mixed-up cues from culture, advertising, media, and marketing [that are making single women feel insecure or unwelcome when purchasing different products.]”
“We as an industry have to face up to the fact that we have profited from stereotyping people,” says Karen. “We talk a big game about personalizing, and one-to-one marketing, but then we’re just talking to everybody in the same voice.”
The marketing industry would reap big benefits from tapping into this underrepresented market of women. “From a brand marketing perspective, it is a huge opportunity…for us to choose another side of how ‘this woman’ lives,” says Sophie.
How to Represent Women As We Truly Are
The panel agreed that we are in “the age of transparency,” and that there is a need to address those who are underrepresented. Karen encourages brands to “have the conversation. People want to talk and want to be heard. This is not just a tremendous economic opportunity, it’s a human opportunity.” In terms of marketing, she says that “truth works, it resonates. When advertisers tell the truth, it really connects. There’s no such thing as a male-dominated product. Women buy everything.”
Sophie agrees. “We have a role to play in encouraging transparent conversation. There’s a group out there that is nervous about how to talk to this audience.” She shares a strategy that is “about demanding cultural and consumer insights, and demanding work that reflects and is relevant to them. As a marketer, you have the responsibility to identify the opportunity, then to demand that we’re looking for the right insights around who these people are, and demand work that reflects it. You need to go right through the system and demand female directors, and the female perspective.”
From an anthropological perspective, Dr. Fisher believes that when it comes to gender roles, women are going back to their roots. “For millions of years, we traveled in hunting and gathering groups. Women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables, they came home with 60 to 80% of the evening meal. The double-income family was the rule,” she says. “And women were regarded as sexual and just as economically powerful as men. We’re moving forward to that now… There’s nothing unusual about the kind of woman found in this study. What’s unusual is that this is surprising to the media.”
For highlights of the talk and an inside glimpse of the Girls’ Lounge at Cannes, watch this.
For more about the accurate portrayal of women in media, check out:
Katie Couric & Top Leaders On The State Of Women In Media & Ads
A Surprising Reason For Gender Equality Ads—And How To Fix It
The Power Of Media To Help Drive Equality