WMC News & Features

Meet Your Brand’s New Spokesperson: Funny, Female, and Fully Clothed

Progressives Flo

“Ads sell more than products,” says Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 4, the most recent installment of her groundbreaking series about how advertising uses women’s bodies to sell products, often turning our bodies into the products themselves. “They sell values. They sell images. They sell concepts of love, of sexuality, of success—and, perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent, they tell us who we are and who we should be.” For the past 40 years, Kilbourne has been writing and speaking about how women’s bodies are objectified and commodified in ads, creating a culture that teaches women and girls that their appearance is their most valuable asset.

As a marketer and a feminist, I analyze ads with Kilbourne’s perspective in mind, looking for brands that are brave enough (and smart enough) to reject tired, sexist motifs. And though thousands of brands continue to objectify women or blast audiences with archaic ideas about gender in order to sell their products, I’ve been pleased to see a few modern brands introduce female spokespeople that seem to break the mold. If we take a look at Progressive Insurance’s “Flo,” Toyota’s “Jan,” and Havertys’ “Emily,” I think we can see a promising trend.

What’s different about these spokeswomen? First, their humor, not their bodies, is the centerpiece of the ads. Stephanie Courtney (Flo), Laurel Coppock (Jan), and Emily Tarver (Emily) are comedic actresses with backgrounds in improv, and their offbeat personalities and dry humor create the allure of the ads. While most viewers would agree that these women are attractive, they’re not sexualized—no cleavage, wind-blown hair, or slow camera pans of their bodies. And though some may recognize all three actresses from their previous work in comedy (Tarver, for example, was a recurring contributor to Vh1’s “Best Week Ever”), none of them are celebrities. We’re used to seeing women in ads either as silent and half-clothed or as product mouthpieces made credible by their celebrity (think Beyoncé for Pepsi and Eva Longoria for Doritos), so to make their comedic talent and ability to create an engaging character, rather than their breasts or spouted slogans, the focus of the campaign is quite revolutionary.

When women do show up in ads without being objectified outright, they’re often promoting products exclusively targeting women: cleaning products, make-up, diapers, etc. (think Ellen DeGeneres for CoverGirl or Jennifer Hudson for Weight Watchers). Agencies crafting ads targeting both men and women historically choose male spokespeople, assuming that men are both more authoritative and, somehow, more “neutral.” Flo, Jan, and Emily, though, represent brands that target both male and female consumers. In fact, Flo stands as a stark contrast to Dean Winters (aka “Mayhem”) and Dennis Haysbert, AllState’s “bad-boy” and father figure duo, while Jan actually talks to customers in her commercials about Toyota’s products, instead of washing the cars in a bikini or sitting in the passenger’s seat as women tend to do in car commercials. And Emily breaks gender norms across ads (see a complete collection on ad agency B-R’s website), essentially proposing to her boyfriend in one spot, hijacking an interview with a patriarch in another, and later putting her color choices above maternal instinct when adopting a pet. And while it could be argued that Flo, Jan, and Emily are part of an effort to attract more women to these brands, the ads are not positioned as girly alternatives to a mainstream marketing effort.

I’m not only thrilled by these brands’ ingenuity in showcasing witty women without sexualizing them, but I’m also encouraged by the results. Other agencies should take note: Flo, Jan, and Emily are delivering engaged audiences and making previously dry brands more likable. Flo has more than 23,000 followers on Twitter and more than 5.3 million Facebook fans, and, according to their financial reports, Progressive has been steadily gaining market share since 2009 (Flo debuted in 2008). Havertys’ ad agency, Bernstein Rein, reports that Emily’s campaign has lead to six consecutive quarters of in-store sales growth. And while it’s a bit trickier to determine Jan’s results, as her ads are fairly recent and comprise just a sliver of Toyota’s international advertising behemoth, Toyota’s sales were up in December and Jan’s ads are constantly uploaded to YouTube by enamored fans.  

Stuart Elliott, the advertising columnist of the New York Times, places Jan and Flo as part of a larger trend in advertising: “a boom, or boomlet, in characters being introduced in campaigns for major marketers.” I think it’s important, and promising, that these marketers are employing strong female characters and abandoning the idea that men are gender-neutral while women must either be sex objects or supporting characters.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get far into my research of Flo, Jan, and Emily when I stumbled upon vulgar comments, rape threats, fetish material, and other troll-ish behavior in the comments sections of articles or videos. When advertisers fail to sexualize women or make their bodies the focus of the ad, backward-thinking members of the public will step in to do so. This repulsive but predictable behavior is further evidence that we need more characters like Flo, Jan, and Emily. I hope that a few years from now, Kilbourne will be writing about how they served as pioneers of a new type of ad, not exceptions to a never-ending rule. 

This Saturday on WMC Live with Robin Morgan on CBS Radio WFJK 1580 at 11:00 a.m. in the Mid Atlantic Region

Robin on climate change indifference, and how political scandals scapegoat women. Guests: Nina Khruscheva on Russia’s Gulag mindset; Annie Leonard’s history of “stuff”; Linda Sarsour fights bigotry at Arab Americans; Maia Szalavitz on the right rehabs for addicted women.




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