• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 33 - National Airlines' Saucy "Fly Me" Ad Campaign & the 1970s Stewardess Rebellion

Updated: Aug 1

With Nell McShane Wulfhart, Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham


Sexist advertising that objectifies women reached its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


But, in that era, it was very seldom that any company actually faced backlash or consequences for its ad practices.

That began to change, however, when National Airlines deployed a racy new ad campaign in which alluring young stewardesses invited travelers to "Fly Me" on their next business trip.


National Airlines may have sold more tickets as a result of the ads.


But, for a workforce of stewardesses who were fed up with sexist standards and unfair working conditions, the campaign proved to be a tipping point that sent them into the streets to protest, organize, and agitate for the respect they deserved—both in the workplace and in the media.


In this episode, Nell McShane Wulfhart—author of The Great Stewardess Rebellion—charts a course through the aviation, advertising and labor history of this story.


Plus, we're joined by Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham to explore the sexist tropes at play in 1970s advertising, and how sexism is just as pernicious in today's media, even if it's less blatant. Philippa and Jane are co-authors of Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is Still Sexist and How to Fix It, and are also co-founders of the agency PLH, the UK’s leading research consultancy specializing in female audiences.


While you're here:


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

In the early 1970s, National Airlines was a top-tier business and vacation travel operator headquartered in Miami and offering routes across North America and to Europe and, in an era of peak objectification of women in advertising, they launched a campaign that really went the extra mile high.


Judy:

You can Fly Me morning, afternoon or night. Just say when. I'm Judy, and I was born to fly. Fly me.


Dusty Weis:

Laden with sly winks and innuendo, the Fly Me campaign put National Airlines' team of perky, attractive and inexplicably scantily clad stewardesses front and center. In TV spots and magazine ads, they beckoned to male business travelers suggestively to fly the more than just friendly skies perhaps on the tail end of the Mad Man era. It shouldn't really surprise anyone that the Fly Me campaign was actually a pretty big hit for National Airlines in the immediate sense, but it launched at a time when stewardesses, which is what they were called at the time, were getting pretty fed up with the sexist standards and working conditions to which they were subjected.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

They were infuriated. There had been tons and tons of ads before this that irritated them, that made them angry, but the Fly Me campaign is the one that got them onto the streets.


Dusty Weis:

Author Nell McShane Wulfhart tells us that, eventually, the National Airlines' Fly Me campaign got too hot to handle even for company management. Plus, we talked to Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham from PLH, the UK's leading marketing research consultancy for female audiences, about how, while sexism in advertising is a lot less blatant these days, it's no less pernicious.


Jane Cunningham:

She might not be sitting on the bonnet of a car or standing in her pinny at the window doing the dishes, but the good girl is still there playing out and telling women how they should be.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing and branding disasters and the well-meaning communications professionals who live them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. We're here every month telling new stories that you can learn from in the field of public relations and marketing. Do yourself a favor. Open up your podcast app right now and follow or subscribe to this show, or do me a favor and leave a five-star rating and review with your thoughts.


Dusty Weis:

We're talking today with Nell McShane Wulfhart, a journalist, columnist and frequent contributor to The New York Times' travel section. She's also written for Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine. Her new book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion, has received rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and even prominent feminist, journalist and activist Gloria Steinem.


Dusty Weis:

Nell, thank you for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast today.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Thanks for having me, Dusty. I'm happy to be here.


Dusty Weis:

Nell, obviously, anytime you look back at a 50-year-old advertising campaign, there are going to be elements that feel outdated, out of touch by today's standards, but in your book, you write about National Airlines' Fly Me campaign and others like it.


Dusty Weis:

I have to say I went back and I watched some of these ads, and it feels particularly a lot. It's safe to say this was a reflection of the rampant sexism particularly that female flight attendants experienced in the 1960s and '70s, the sexism that prompted them, as you write about in your book, to organize and demand fair and equal treatment in the workplace. Can you set the scene for us a little bit? What was it like to be a flight attendant prior to the Fly Me campaign?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Sure. Well, my book covers the '60s and the '70s. Being a flight attendant back then was a totally different job. First of all, to get the job, you had to meet a certain number of criteria. For example, you couldn't wear glasses and you couldn't have scars or acne or crooked teeth. Then you had to meet a very strict weight requirement that was determined according to your height. You had to be very slim and you had to maintain that weight throughout your career, and then it came to holding on to the job, which was also difficult because you were fired if you got married. You were fired if you got pregnant, and you were fired once you turned 32.


Dusty Weis:

Obviously, anytime you've got an edict like this handed down from management, it's going to come in with, I don't know, I would imagine some sort of HR spin. Under what guise did they have this set of ridiculous expectations? What did they tell the flight attendants?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Well, it all came down from the airline. There were not HR rules in play at that point that made any difference. It was all about keeping their workforce young, keeping them conventionally attractive and making sure that they moved along after a few years. I mean, during the '60s, the average tenure for a flight attendant was less than three years because most of them at that point would leave to get married.


Dusty Weis:

I'll be darned. That's incredible. The work conditions themselves then I would imagine we're steeped in this same level of sexism and unrealistic expectations.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Yeah, I mean being a flight attendant is a really difficult job, and that's still true today. It's a very physical job. You're jet-lagged. You're exhausted. You have to be nice to people for many hours in a row, which I know would be a struggle for a lot of us. You're walking maybe eight hours in a single shift and, back in the '60s, you had to do that in three-inch heels. There weren't a lot of options that you could take to get around that.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

It was a tough job, and also the pay and the benefits and all the working conditions were not as good as they were for other crew like the ground crew or the mechanics or the cleaning crew. Of course, that's partially because they were women and they weren't expected to stay in the job very long and partly just because people thought the job of flight attendants wasn't an important one. They weren't considered safety professionals. They were more like flying cocktail waitresses.


Dusty Weis:

As dissatisfaction grew among the stewardess workforce, they began to organize and negotiate with management. They wanted more reasonable expectations, better working conditions and some modicum of respect for doing a job that was both demanding and critically important.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

As soon as they started managing to knock down those rules and stay on the job longer, there was a change in the way that the airlines decided to advertise to their customers. In the '60s, the ads had focused a lot more on the idea that these were unbelievable superwomen who could pour coffee for hundreds of people at a time and remember everybody's dinner order, and one of the ads even said treat you like your mother. They had this idea that these women were there to really take care of you on the plane, and then, once they started pushing back against these sexist regulations and in combination with the '70s, the Feminist Movement was getting much more traction, there was more women's liberation, and then the ads took a turn for the sexualization of the stewardesses which is what brings us to the Fly Me ad.


Maggie:

I'm Maggie. Fly Me to New York. You'll love my two 747s to Kennedy. Fly me.


National Airlines Ad:

Fly Maggie. Fly National.


Dusty Weis:

Whether it was Maggie's two 747s or bikini-clad Judy on the beach, the TV spots for the Fly Me campaign were wildly over the top, and the magazine ads only laid it on even picker. Laura promised, "I'll fly you nonstop from London to Miami any morning at 10:40." "Call me now. Fly me later," promised Denise. I Imagine that business class travelers were led to believe that they could have their pick of any one of these stewardess who sashayed their way seductively through these ads.


Diane:

I'm Diane. I've got 747s to Miami. Fly me.


Teri:

I'm Teri. I've got great connections in Miami, all over the Sunshine State of America. Fly me.


Marissa:

I'm Marissa. I've got nonstop flights to Miami every day. Fly me.


Dusty Weis:

Assume that I am adorably naive and easy to blush here. Let's explore the meaning of this double entendre a little bit. What were they going for?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

I don't think we have to dig very deep for that one, Dusty. I think it's another word that starts with F. We'll go for that, but it was really unsubtle. I mean, all the imagery, all the copy in the ads was all about like, "Come, fly me. Fly Me to Miami. Fly me anytime of day or night," which was an extremely unsubtle way of inviting men to fly National and see what they could get.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

National was doing what all the other airlines at the time were doing, which was trying to get more male business passengers. This was the airlines' bread and butter. I mean, I think that's probably still true today, but this was the most desirable class of passenger. Even the ads back in the '60s, that had been all about taking care of the passengers and smiling at them and being these warm, welcoming creatures. They were all about the same thing, welcoming tired male businessmen on to the plane.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

In 1972, National Airlines comes up with this ad, and they call it the Fly Me campaign. What it is essentially is a big two-page print ad or some commercials, and each one starred a real stewardess, a real working stewardess. The most famous one is Cheryl. The ad is just a big picture of her smiling at the camera, and it says, "I'm Cheryl. Fly me," and the ads go from there. There's Donna. I'm Linda. Fly me. It was a whole campaign about these smiling women who are welcoming men on board and inviting them to fly them.


Dusty Weis:

Obviously, the target audience here is men, but was this working with that audience?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

It worked like gangbusters. This was a hugely successful campaign. I think, within a year, National saw an increase in revenue of 19%. There were Fly Me mugs. There were Fly Me T-shirts. I mean, Fly Me was everywhere. If you talked to people who were flying back then or even not flying back then, so many of the people can remember this ad from the '70s. It had such an impact. It was hugely successful.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

I think the ticket sales probably speak for themselves and the fact that people would wear Fly Me T-shirts. Unironically, they just thought this was a great campaign. It was one that made people feel good, or it made men feel good I suppose. It really took over. They even painted the planes with the name of the stewardesses. If you were looking up from the ground, you might see Cindy zoom by in the air. You'd really feel like you could fly Cindy.


Dusty Weis:

Look, history is full of movies, ads and media that didn't pass the test of time. Here on Lead Balloon, we wanted to put it to the experts just how egregious is the National Airlines' Fly Me campaign. In fact, I'll go even one further and say that maybe, as a middle-aged guy, I'm not the best person to lead a discussion about such a topic, so I'm bringing in a ringer, specifically, our wildly talented and totally unflappable summer intern, Beatrice Lawrence.


Dusty Weis:

Beatrice spoke with Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham, co-authors of Brandsplaining, Why Marketing is Still Sexist and How to Fix It. Jane and Philippa are also the co-founders of the agency PLH, the UK's leading research consultancy specializing in female audiences. Beatrice started by showing them some of the Fly Me campaigns' top flight material.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Jane and Phillipa, thanks for being here.


Philippa Roberts:

Thank you for having us.


Jane Cunningham:

Oh, thank you for having us.


Beatrice Lawrence:

We're going to have you blind react to one of these old campaigns for National Airlines.


Judy:

Everything you've heard about us Miami girls is true.


Dusty Weis:

Just to describe what's happening in this spot, it opens with an attractive blonde driving to the beach and proceeding to strip down to her bikini before running out to the surf Baywatch style. Number of airplanes? Zero.


Judy:

National has nonstop DC-10 every day, or fly me to New Orleans on the only DC-10. You can fly me morning, afternoon or night. Just say when. I'm Judy, and I was born to fly. Fly me.


National Airlines Ad:

Fly Judy. Fly National.


Beatrice Lawrence:

It's a bit ridiculous, right?


Philippa Roberts:

Oh, my God. I mean, it's like a parody, isn't it?


Beatrice Lawrence:

Right? Yeah. Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

Beatrice also shared some of the campaign's magazine clippings with Philippa and Jane.


Beatrice Lawrence:

I'm Laura. Fly me nonstop to Miami.


Philippa Roberts:

Oh, my God.


Beatrice Lawrence:

I'm Denise. Call me now. Fly me later, and this is, "I'm Margie," and basically part of the campaign was they put some of the flight attendants' names on the sides of the plane so you could literally fly them. I'd like to hear what your thoughts as experts on sexism and advertising.


Philippa Roberts:

One of the ideas that we explore in our work in the book is this notion of the good girl. The good girl is a representation of women that advertisers have traditionally really loved. In marketing terms, it comes from a 1950s era where men were mostly in charge most of the time when it came to communications, and the presentation of women in that context always conformed to this good girl persona.


Philippa Roberts:

Women were always good in the way that they appeared, so they were always slim. They were always blonde. They were always white and they were always really attractive, so just like Judy in that ad. In personality terms, they were always really smiling, really welcoming, pretty vacant and pretty passive, and then, in terms of their sort of roles, they were always playing this secondary support role, always doing the nurturing, encouraging, soothing thing.


Philippa Roberts:

That's been a huge trope in marketing ever since marketing existed, really. It was a very helpful trope from a marketing point of view because it always said to women what you are isn't enough. You need to change and you need to become more good. You need to become more like this, and how you are now is lacking. It was a very convenient trope, but obviously an incredibly punishing and negative trope for women generally. I guess that campaign is the embodiment, I suppose, of that kind of good girl thinking.


Beatrice Lawrence:

I mean, the flight attendant and the guidelines that they were forced to follow is a direct reflection of that good girl trope.


Jane Cunningham:

Yeah, and Virgin had a big focus on its stewardesses as they were called then in exactly the same objectifying way, but there's something even weirder about that campaign because they seem to be saying that they are the airline, they are the planes and then, inherent in that, there's some weird innuendo about come fly with me or fly with me over and over again. It's some sort of invitation to use them, which is it feels even further over the line than a lot of campaigns used to be and was certainly in those days. There's something uniquely sleazy in the '70s about it, isn't there?


Beatrice Lawrence:

They're quite literally objectifying the stewardesses. Once you put their name on a plane, you're basically saying they're to be used.


Jane Cunningham:

Exactly, and the stewardess is wandering on to the beach and casually removing her clothes for no apparent reason nowhere near a plane.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Exactly. Exactly. It's pretty blatant. You've outlined some of the not-so-hidden messages in advertising, but, if you had to guess, who was this campaign designed by and designed for?


Jane Cunningham:

I mean, invariably, it would've been written by some young male creatives. I mean, it would be true to say that even now most creative departments and most advertising agencies are still dominated by men under 35, and certainly most creative directors are still men. Very few female creative directors are actually making the decisions about which ideas get progressed, but certainly then it would've been young men, and they would've been targeting, the assumption is business men because it was only men who apparently were in business. Therefore, presenting women through the male lens was a way of gaining competitive advantage because you had some young men talking to some professional men and using women in the middle of that conversation to attract them. I imagine that's exactly what it was. It was men talking to men about women.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Flight attendants themselves, when they saw these ads, a lot of them were obviously extremely offended by the campaign and protested and were very outspoken about that. Unfortunately, it was a smash hit with Nationals' target audience. It boosted their sales by 19%. They even did a follow-up campaign. They milked that one for a while. Given that fact, what would you say to advertisers today who might opt to prioritize profits by their desired audience over respectful representation?


Jane Cunningham:

I suppose the difference between now and then is that most women certainly in the research that we do, and we've just done a really big study actually across 14 countries about women's attitudes towards their own representation in advertising, is that women really won't put up with it anymore.


Jane Cunningham:

Now, of course, if you were targeting a business audience, at least 50% of them would be women. You would be highly unlikely to be successful with a campaign like that now because the audience wouldn't be a hundred percent male, but you would also have a huge backlash through social media.


Jane Cunningham:

Of course, if you think about when that campaign originated, all of the world's media was edited and owned by men. Therefore, if women were upset by it, offended by it and didn't want it to continue, they literally had no voice because they were edited out of that conversation, whereas now, of course, social media facilitates everybody having a voice, whoever you are, for good and for real, but it has meant that female voices and female dissent around that kind of representation has come much more to the fore. It's not really a question of either profit or do the right thing. Actually, female audiences, they just won't countenance that kind of presentation of themselves most of the time.


Jane Cunningham:

Actually, most bright, thinking men wouldn't respond positively to that kind of stuff anymore.


Beatrice Lawrence:

That's quite encouraging actually.


Dusty Weis:

National Airlines' Fly Me campaign was a hit in the early '70s. Sales were up, and flying public appeared to be sufficiently tantalized, but what they didn't realize was that National's workforce of stewardess was out of patience and was about to tell the company's management to go fly themselves.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

The one thing that the stewardess in my book were great at were making management uncomfortable. That was almost their full-time job.


Dusty Weis:

We'll hear how Nell's book got the name The Great Stewardess Rebellion, plus how to combat sexism in modern advertising. That's all coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. The English playwright William Congreve once wrote a line often quoted as, "Hell hath no fury." While we can debate whether that bit of 17th Century verse constitutes sexism in its own right some other time, author Nell McShane Wulfhart says, "Quite a few of the stewardesses at National Airlines were feeling a fair bit of fury there in the early 1970s. Their working conditions were crummy enough, the standards to which they were held blatantly sexist, and now the company was running an ad campaign that invited any Tom, Dick or Harry in business class to make a pass at them on the job.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

There were a couple of different reactions from working stewardesses. I think that there were some stewardesses who were like, "Oh, this is a fun campaign. It's funny. It's bringing in customers. This is great," but the women that my book really focuses on, the ones who are dedicated to changing the circumstances of their workplace and changing the airline cabin from the most sexist place to work in America to a slightly less sexist one, they were infuriated.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

There had been tons and tons of ads before this that irritated them, that made them angry, but the Fly Me campaign is the one that got them on to the streets, and they went out in New York and they picketed the ad agency that had come up with this slogan. They had signs that said, "Go fly yourself," which I thought was a pretty good comeback. Then there's also a story that the owner of the ad agency. His name was Bill Free. He came out to the protesting stewardesses and he started handing out red roses to them. They go home and they make new signs and they come back the next day, and now the signs say, "I'm Bill. Fire me."


Dusty Weis:

It's safe to say that Bill Free didn't think he was doing anything wrong here. Yeah?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

I don't know if he really cared. I mean, it was such a successful campaign. I don't know if it kept him up at night that the stewardesses hated it.


Dusty Weis:

The stewardesses take to the streets. They start picketing the ad agency. What else did they do to mobilize at that point, and what were the consequences both in the short term and the long term for National Airlines?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Well, the stewardesses, they wrote angry letters. They organized boycotts. The National Organization for Women, they backed them up and they were out there also protesting on the streets. A year later actually, National was coming up with a new campaign that was going to feature stewardesses wearing swimsuits, and the tagline was, "I'm going to fly you like you've never been flown before." That one, they took to the national broadcasting agency and they managed to get that one struck down I think on very technical grounds that the stewardesses weren't actually flying the planes, but, either way, they managed to stop that one from going out.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

They were furious and, of course, they could see the effect in the cabin. Stewardesses had a hard time getting respect to begin with because of the idea that they were just there to bring drinks and serve meals and quiet crying babies, and then, when you had these airlines, their employers are really advertising to everyone that they were there just to be viewed as sex objects, it's really demoralizing. I think it affected the way that passengers treated them as well. Customers would say to them like, "Oh, can I fly you today, baby?" What were they supposed to do with that?


Dusty Weis:

What's anybody supposed to do with that? Definitely, it's spurred action, but how were their acts of protests met by the management at National Airlines? Did they take them seriously or did they just brush them off at first?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

That's a really good question. I'm not sure what was going on at the ad agency at that time or at National Airlines. I mean, I think the focus was all on the bottom line and how successful these ads were and just the word of mouth. I mean, just like the incredible, not even necessarily the passengers that were being generated, but everybody knew about this ad campaign. It was a huge success on those grounds, and so a few angry flight attendants was not something that was going to affect them one way or the other. I mean, like I said, they were going to try with this other ad, "I'm going to fly like it'd never been flown before." It didn't impede their quest to make these flying sex objects even more desirable.


Dusty Weis:

Would you say, from National Airlines' perspective, was the campaign a net positive or a net negative when you weigh the increase in ticket sales versus the heartburn and protests that it generated for management there?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Oh, definitely, a net positive, but, in a way, it was a net positive for the stewardess as well because it was a cause around which they could rally. There was a group that had been formed in 1972 called Stewardesses for Women's Rights, which was made up of stewardesses from airlines all over the United States. They had meetings, and they were all about changing their working conditions, but when it came to something like the Fly Me campaign, a campaign that was grabbing headlines and was universally known, the fact that they were pushing back against this, they also got headlines out of it. They got a lot of attention paid to their group, and then they used that attention to talk about the disrespect they were getting from passengers or the way passengers would grope them or the fact that they were being underpaid. They managed to use this issue to magnify the real issues that were bothering them in their workplace, which was pretty clever.


Dusty Weis:

Ultimately, I mean, getting those issues out there into the public, it serves as a agent for change, but also it must have made management a little bit uncomfortable to have those discussions happening in the public square.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

The one thing that the stewardesses in my book were great at were making management uncomfortable. That was almost their full-time job. If they weren't protesting about the weight limits or the high heels they were forced to wear or the makeup requirements, they were protesting the ads and the way the passengers were treating them and I mean a myriad of other things. Managements were uncomfortable, but that was definitely... They would have taken that as a win.


Dusty Weis:

Eventually, we reached a point where these ads stopped airing. Did they just run their course or did there come a point when the pushback against them just became too much that they decided to move on to other tactics?


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Well, there was definitely a heyday I think from 1972 to about 1976. These kinds of ads were coming from every airline. In my book, there's a lot of reproductions of these ads which are really both fun and depressing to look at, but there was tons of them. It was like almost unavoidable.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Southwest at one point was like the love airline, and they put their flight attendants in orange hot pants and white go-go boots. That was like a uniform. If you can imagine serving a hot coffee to 150 people in hot pants, then you can get a sense of how difficult the job was.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

The stewardesses, they did a lot of boycotts actually. There were a lot of commercials that used this sexy stewardess image to sell everything from toothpaste to pantyhose, and they would protest. They would call into talk shows that used this sexy stewardess trope, and they would write angry letters, and sometimes they would support companies. I think Firestone in the '70s had a commercial, a television commercial, and it showed a stewardess sensibly picking out snow chains for her car. They wrote letters to Firestone thanking them for portraying the stewardesses in such a reasonable light and promising to continue to buy Firestone tires in the future.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

The women in my book eventually realized that, although they're getting a lot of play, a lot of attention, this is not how they're actually going to change their working conditions and that the way to actually make this job from a temp job into a career is through their union, and so they turn their attention to union work. They start taking union leadership positions eventually. This is a little bit of a spoiler, but they break away from organized labor and they form their own women-led unions, which is the end of my book. Basically, they realize that it's about unity. It's about togetherness and it's about using the power of numbers to actually get things done.


Dusty Weis:

National Airlines wouldn't be around for much longer. It got bought out by Pan American in 1980, which in turn would be absorbed by Delta in 1991. Beyond its status as a rallying point for better working conditions and less sexism, the Fly Me campaign is really just another absurd example of things that were accepted as commonplace in the past, but clearly don't belong in a modern context. However, Nell says that one thing that hasn't kept pace with the times are the working conditions that flight attendants face even now in 2022.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Especially right now, I think we're seeing more difficult working conditions for flight attendants than we've seen in a long time. I mean, throughout the pandemic, there were passengers who were refusing to wear masks, who were getting drunk, who were assaulting flight attendants. There was recently that case on Frontier Airlines where there was a drunken passenger who was groping the female flight attendants and punched a male flight attendant, and they had to duct tape him to his seat, so that just had been out of control.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

I think that the through line from my book from the '60s and '70s to now is just a lack of respect for flight attendants. There's this idea that was, again, I think due in large part to the way the airlines were propagating this idea back in the '60s and '70s that these women were just there for decoration. They weren't there because they were safety professionals. That idea really stuck. I think that, even today, the lack of respect that people have for flight attendants can be traced back to that idea that flight attendants aren't actually important. They're not there actually to make sure that everyone who gets on the plane gets off the plane. They're just there to bring you a tiny can of Coke and a biscuit maybe.


Dusty Weis:

In a lot of ways, everything has changed and nothing has changed.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Yes. There's a lot of noise right now about flight attendants in the news because people have realized that flight attendants don't get paid for boarding. That's something that recently became well-known when Delta started to pay their flight attendants for boarding. Before that, it wasn't until the doors closed and the wheels went up that flight attendants would start getting paid.


Nell McShane Wulfhart:

Everyone's been on a flight where they're sitting on the tarmac for two hours before the plane goes anywhere. Flight attendants aren't getting paid for that time, and so Delta recently just agreed to start paying flight attendants for that time, not coincidentally I think because there's a big union drive going on right now at Delta. There are 24,000 flight attendants that the Association of Flight Attendants is trying to bring into their union, and this was a reaction I think on Delta's part to that action. There's a connection all the way through.


Dusty Weis:

Here at Podcamp Media, this discussion left us asking ourselves might there be some things in modern advertising 50 years from now at which our children will look back and go, "Holy cow. I can't believe they thought that was appropriate." For the answer to that question, our very own Beatrice Lawrence continues the discussion with Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham from PLH in London.


Beatrice Lawrence:

These campaigns are pretty blatant, the ones we see in the '70s. Now, because of that of backlash that we see from things that are blatant like that sexism in advertising, it seems it's more subtle. Have the challenges of resisting sexist advertising changed now that they're a little bit less overt?


Philippa Roberts:

It is still the case actually. In most of marketing and advertising, there is still mostly men who are mostly in charge most of the time, and the good girl trope continues to dominate. It just presents, and you politely say subtle, we would say much sneakier manifestations. It's still the case that almost all women that are represented in marketing are represented in a way which is appearance orientated. They're almost always there because they're attractive. Their personalities continue to be vacant, passive, usually smiling. The roles that they play in marketing tend still to be really secondary, still doing the support tech thing. It's there in all sorts of apparently smaller ways, but actually continue to communicate that same good girl idea.


Jane Cunningham:

Because if you really look at it carefully, what you will see, what you will notice is that she might not be sitting on the bonnet of a car or standing in her panty at the window doing the dishes, but the good girl is still there playing out and telling women how they should be.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Do you think that's the biggest issue we face with sexism in advertising? If not, what are some others that we tend to see commonly nowadays?


Jane Cunningham:

A lot of the advertising and marketing, there's been a collective clapping ourselves, themselves on the back to say, "Oh, we're over all of that sexist stuff now. Now, we've got fempowerment, and we've got Barbie telling girls to dream it, be it, and Pantene telling women to be strong and shine.


Jane Cunningham:

While lots of those campaigns and those brands which have been making genuine efforts to move away from the traditional, very obvious and explicit sexist ideas, so you have Dove bringing much greater, more common representation and accurate representation of women as they actually are or have always trying to correct and address ideas around femininity saying, "Stop saying like a girl," as a sort of insult.


Jane Cunningham:

There have been some genuine moves forward and very well-meant moves forward, but much like the corporate feminism of the '90s, I'm saying to women actually no. Okay, we're going to stop telling you to be thinner and to have clearer skin and to have shinier hair. Now, we're going to tell you've got to be bolder. You've got to be brighter. You've got to be more successful. You've got to stand up for yourself. You've got to be strong. You've got to have bigger dreams, which is exactly the same assumed relationship between business brand and female customer, which is to say we know what's best for you. We'll tell you how you can improve yourself in terms of how you think which, of course is a distraction from the main game if you want to achieve equality and reduce or eliminate sexism which is the system, not the individual.


Jane Cunningham:

It's not women's fault that they're not succeeding, that they're not managing to fulfill each and every one of their dreams. It is the fact that they're operating in a system which is quite often working against those dreams. While there have been some steps forward, that model of marketing doesn't feel like it is an answer because their profile is exactly the same problem, which is brands thinking that it's their job to tell women how to be and what to be.


Philippa Roberts:

Actually, that shift from, oh, this is how you need to appear and this is what you need to look like to this is how you need to think is in a way even more sly and...


Jane Cunningham:

Gaslighty.


Philippa Roberts:

... gaslighty than the Judy and Laura and Denise. There's no mistaking what that communication was all about, but it's these gaslighty things that happen now under the cover of some kind of fempowerment messaging that we think is often very worrying and needs much more careful scrutiny than just a, "Oh, yes, that's going in a good direction."


Beatrice Lawrence:

What I've noticed is that people my age are pushing back on that idea of fempowerment, corporate feminism. I often use the term girl boss, or I often hear that used ironically, so just from my perspective, it seems like hopefully people are starting to become more skeptical of that idea of people telling you that the way to become empowered is to become even more of a good girl.


Jane Cunningham:

Yes, and to work even harder.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Yeah, give more of yourself.


Jane Cunningham:

Give more of yourself. You're just not trying hard enough. That's your problem, lady. It's pretty insidious I think, isn't it?


Philippa Roberts:

Puts the onus on the individual to change and neatly sidesteps therefore any examination of what might be wrong with the system itself.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Given that the sexist pitfalls are so commonplace in marketing, how can well-intentioned advertisers do better? Does it lie in the hiring? Does it lie in training? What are we looking at here?


Philippa Roberts:

The first place that it starts is in awareness and understanding of these tropes and ideas and how persistent they are and pulling them into the light so people can see them for what it is. Most enlightened organizations should be pushing to have that understanding, hiring more women to correct the culture that you get in creative departments which tends to be a very bro culture. It's very important in the end execution in photography and directors and casting, all that end of things that that gets done, but we would say it all needs to begin with proper listening to the audience.


Philippa Roberts:

For so long, marketing has not been listening to its audience. It's been actually saying to its audience, "We're right. You're wrong, and you need to fix yourself." What needs to happen now is a proper reversal of that to listen to the audience and what they want and need and feel about themselves and who they are and how they are, and to represent that lived experience really properly and to listen to it really carefully instead of being the one that's always talking at the audience.


Beatrice Lawrence:

Philippa Roberts and Jane Cunningham, your co-authors of Brandsplaining, Why Marketing is Still Sexist and How to Fix It, as well as co-founders and directors of PLH, the UK's leading marketing research consultancy specializing in female audiences. Jane and Phillipa, thanks for joining us on the Lead Balloon podcast.


Jane Cunningham:

Thanks, Beatrice.


Philippa Roberts:

Oh, thank you so much.


Dusty Weis:

Beatrice Lawrence, our production assistant, researcher, editor and interviewer for this episode. I don't have to tell you this, but as summer interns go, Beatrice is crushing it. Thanks as well to Nell McShane Wulfhart, author of The Great Stewardess Rebellion, which has been showing up on the bestseller lists and is available now wherever books are sold. This month on the Lead Balloon comms gripe line, it's Mariah MacInnes.


Mariah MacInnes:

My pet peeve is the expectations we have around content marketing. We see people going viral on TikTok daily. There's now this expectation that we can continue to create viral content without the need to be consistent, without the need to have passion, to share insights, to actually create value, where a lot of us are thinking we just need to jump on a trend or follow what other people are doing to be successful. That is my biggest pet peeve is the expectation around content now with these huge platforms. We think that we can go viral overnight.


Dusty Weis:

Mariah, the Aussie who hosts the inevitable Content Queen podcast, by the way, touching on perhaps one of the greatest sources of frayed nerves among content marketers, why aren't more people liking my tweets?


Dusty Weis:

Anyone who's listened to this show before knows that the algorithm ranks right up there among my top pet peeves as well, so thank you, Mariah, for sharing your gripe, and you can leave your gripe. Whatever cliche or tactic or coworker is driving you nuts in the world of PR and marketing, get it out of your system and into the pod space. Leave me a message on the Lead Balloon comms gripe line. The link is in the episode description.


Dusty Weis:

While we're talking about going viral, please do share this show with your friends if you enjoyed it or found value. Someone out there ought to appreciate these stories as much as you do, I hope at least.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Our podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all across North America. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. Larry Kilgore III helped out with the dialogue editing for this episode. Until the next time, folks, I am Dusty Weis.


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