Madison Avenue, Where Are My Ads?
It was video night recently at my house, and two divorced women friends joined me on the couch for some organic chardonnay, carrot cake and the latest Woody Allen comedy. Before we switched from TV to DVD, we chatted while a major network droned in the background, unnoticed. That is, until Karen said, "Am I the only one who is sick of ads that only feature moms, couples and families? I mean, I'm happy to be a mom, but why are there never single women in them?"
We all agreed that commercials -- in print and in video -- are still hopelessly stuck for the most part in the 50s, where Mom frets about ring around the collar, and Dad builds a mean treehouse.
Dear Mad Men: Where are MY ads? The ads aimed at me, a successful single woman over 40? The ads aimed at my friends who also are unmarried, with disposable income? The ads for the legions of us out there? Sure, there have always been some traditional ads for singles: bachelors are constantly assaulted by rowdy alcohol commercials, and single women by cozily filmed plugs for cat food. And of course nowadays, there is the occasional ad for online matchmaking sites.
But where are the ads that speak to "all the happy single ladies?" Those who may date, or own a cat, but for whom life is so much bigger than that? For many of us, there is much to love about this lifestyle: the travel, the dinners out, the camaraderie with friends, the hard work at pursuits that do not require a minivan. Judging by how we're ignored, you'd think we must be a tiny minority, but in fact the opposite is true.
Note to Madison Avenue: Do your homework. According to the Census Bureau, there are nearly 97 million single people in the United States over 18. And 53 percent of them -- around 51 million -- are women.
In addition, 31 million Americans live alone, and unmarried people head up 27 percent of all U.S. households. (That's a huge jump from 17 percent back in 1970.) The bottom line: When you consider the buying power of single American women, it's stunning to see how few ads are geared to us and our lifestyle.
The problem might start at the top. According to marketing website She-conomy.com, 85 percent of purchases are made by women, but only 3 percent of advertising agency creative directors are female. Does this explain the disconnect? Or are advertisers just behind the sociological curve? Probably both, says University of California Santa Barbara Professor Bella DePaulo, author of the book, Singled Out.
"I think the whole country is suffering from what academics call a 'cultural lag,'" she says. "The place of singles in society has changed dramatically in the past decades, but society's perceptions have not caught up. Most people don't realize that Americans now spend more years of their adult lives single than married, or that there are fewer households comprised of mom, dad and the kids than of single people living solo."
DePaulo says there's also a possibility that advertisers are unwilling to risk being seen as anti-family in the country's conservative climate of recent years. "Marriage and nuclear family are still so much at the center of our cultural imaginations, our sentimentality and our political rhetoric that it seems safe to feature people who are married and who are mothers in ads. That's been done for so long that it is probably the unthinking fallback position."
In one of her regular columns in Psychology Today, DePaulo describes the "singlism and matrimania" that infuses many ads, and lays out the marketing mistakes companies make when it comes to wooing the unmarried population. Among them:
• Assuming that what single people want, more than any particular product, is a soul mate.
• Believing the myth that singles live narrow, constricted lives and are lonely.
• Stereotyping singles in their ads as losers or old maids.
• Treating singles like they don't even exist.
"So many businesses, from travel resources to gyms, only offer special deals to couples. What is the message that gives to single people?" she asks.
The good news: In recent months, I've spied a few ads on TV that have made me wonder if the tide is turning.
A Lowe's ad features a cheerful woman -- a clearly single woman with neither husband nor children in sight -- talking about making bathroom repairs in her new home. Chevrolet also has a commercial in which a young woman guns her hot car down the road, carefree after a breakup. Just recently, I saw a Chase Bank ad where a smart young woman was telling her co-workers about her Chase rewards, and they reacted with excitement: "Wow, you have a new boyfriend named Chase?"
Duh. I'm talking about money, ladies! I am a single woman; hear my bank account roar!
But my favorite has to be the ad for a laundry detergent that features a clearly single -- and happening -- mom. Her teenage daughter asks if she has seen her missing green top. The mother fibs, saying no, and then you catch a flashback of the mom with her girlfriends dancing in a disco, wearing the green top. Wow, can it be true? Single moms over 40 out on the town? Could this be the end of civilization as we know it? Or the beginning of a kinder, smarter era that includes singles in the conversation?
"I do think there are some examples of marketers starting to get it," says DePaulo. "For example, there are ads that recognize the importance of friends. The travel company Girlfriend Getaways, by its very name, proclaims that great vacations are not just for couples or families. And when phone companies tag their plans with names such as 'Friends and Family,' they acknowledge that the people we most want to talk to include our friends."
Amen to that! Time to schedule another video night -- and this time, we won't watch any commercials first.