Comms agency WPP sees opportunity to better address historically taboo subjects in women's health

Almost half of women think advertisers shy away from the real health issues plaguing women, according to a new survey conducted by WPP.

In a recent SeeHer report titled “Health on Her Terms,” research exposed a perceived gender bias in marketing, especially when it comes to women of color, 45% of which want to see more representation of race in health communications.

In the report, close to 25% of women said they do not seek out reproductive health information from a healthcare professional, media or peers due to its taboo nature. Other topics discussed in the report besides reproductive health included weight and mental health.

WPP agencies Grey and Mindshare partnered to uncover and analyze prevalent themes in women’s health and how these themes are depicted in the media today. The top themes that emerged include:

  • Dynamism of womanhood: The media positions women’s experiences of health in a singular fashion, depicting womanhood as young, white and non-disabled instead of displaying its diversity.
  • End of exceptionalism: Research found women are rarely marketed just as they are. Instead, brands prioritize showing women doing extraordinary things.
  • Go beyond women seen solely as caregivers: Women are still seen primarily in the context of their ability to care for others instead of for themselves.

“It is clear that the women we spoke with are tired of being targeted by age or traditional demographics,” Wendy Lund, chief client officer, health and wellness, WPP, told Fierce Pharma Marketing in an interview.  

“They want brands to connect with them based on their mindsets and motivations. This is an amazing opportunity for brands to rethink how they center, connect with and develop an authentic voice to women, for women and with women.”

But the opportunity is still there, as women say they’re likely to be loyal to brands that are willing to tackle these issues in their marketing and advertising. 

On the topic of reproductive health, 52% of women surveyed said miscarriages are not portrayed or are portrayed negatively in the media, and 53% said the same about menstrual cycle information.  

“These results are astounding for women but also an immense opportunity for brands to break down taboos and realistically represent women and their bodies,” said Cassandra Sinclair, president, health and wellness, Grey.

On the topic of mental health, just under 50% of women said they feel it is well represented in the media, and that number is even lower for Generation Z females and non-binary women.

Finally, within the category of weight, both women who are overweight and underweight said that depictions of weigh are unrealistic (52%).

“The opportunity for brands is boundless,” Sinclair added. “Our research shared that we need to show all dimensions of women and not position her as one monolithic being. Women are so diverse, yet the media does not always portray this.”

As part of the WPP campaign and SeeHer, the team created The Marketer’s Hippocratic Oath to Women, based upon the historical physician’s oath. Supporting each of the three themes revealed in the study, the Marketer’s Hippocratic Oath to Women states “to not only do no harm but to drive real change” and create better outcomes for women themselves, as well as their businesses.

Lund and Sinclair note the existence of some breakthrough marketing campaigns in the past few years in the areas of breastfeeding, birth control and breast cancer. But based on the research, there still needs to be more progress in the areas of reproductive health, weight diversity and mental health. In addition, they note a small uptick in campaigns supporting the needs of marginalized women. That said, there is a lot to be done to widen the lens on issues around health equity and marketing to include all women and their health needs.

“Women have always had to be inventive on taking their health needs into their own hands with an industry that needs to take women’s needs seriously—from self-care and beyond. It’s time for marketers deliver on these needs, especially for women from low-income and underrepresented communities who are most marginalized by the health industry,” Lund said.

Also, physicians should play an active role in changing the conversation around women’s health.

“First, to respect the individuality of womanhood as it relates to medicine and recognize that science has not always understood the uniqueness of women—we see this in how women are treated for heart attacks or Autism,” Sinclair said. “We need to communicate with doctors to help them see women as more than caregivers and help to support their mental and physical health.”