Is the future gendered?
Azsa West // WTF GENDER
Azsa West is a creative director at the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, which is often considered one of the most creative agencies out there.
She has been hailed as a creative “you need to know” by Ad Age. She’s worked locally – wherever that local may be – for global clients. When she thinks What the Future, she’s wondering about the messages advertisers send about gender.
WTF: How do you go about thinking about gender with your clients?
Azsa West: For me, I have to separate my own personal point of view as a queer-identified non-gender-conforming person. It depends on the kind of brand you’re working on and the assignment and the target audience. In an ideal world, we would be non-binary in our thinking. However, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to identify with one gender identity more so than another. Where I think it’s not ideal is when we start constricting ourselves and saying that there’s only one right or wrong way to be.
WTF: So, you’re saying basically that products can be gendered, but people don’t necessarily have to be?
West: I think big picture, overall, the more diverse points of view we have, the better. However, there are people out in the world who do strongly identify with brands that project a more feminine-presenting, gendered way of doing things or a more masculine way of doing things or a more androgynous way of doing things. Brands like Old Spice, for example, play with masculinity and kind of poke fun at some of those commercial tropes.
WTF: How do you work with your clients to decide whether or not creative should be aimed more at one or the other or somewhere in between, as an expression of gender?
West: There is hard data that supports real things about gender, like, for example, women tend to do most of the purchasing or buying in the households. In general, the more we keep it open for different kinds of people to participate and connect to, that’s better.
WTF: How do you tread the line if you’re doing work that appeals to one gender to make sure it doesn’t have an adverse reaction from another gender?
West: I am pretty picky about the brands that I do work for. If I feel like a brand is pushing me into a place that feels not very inclusive, and there’s no real data to back that up, then I do my very best to help the brand evolve. Sometimes the brand doesn’t want to know, and that’s their prerogative. But I think that that can be very dangerous. As advertisers, we have a responsibility to put forward a message that welcomes all people and to always have representation. There should be an ethical line. I feel very grateful to work at an agency that believes that.
WTF: What does that look like?
West: There’s reality, which is very diverse, and then there’s the depiction of [what] we create as advertisers. The two things feed off of each other. For example, I identify as a gay person, but it took me a long time to come out of the closet because I didn’t see very many people like me where I grew up or in the advertising or magazines that I read. And a part of me does think that if I saw more people like me, maybe I would feel that it was safer to be myself and be the person that I was meant to be.
WTF: In our data, we see younger Americans being more accepting and being wider in their definitions of gender. How do you see that starting to shift the conversations?
West: It’s shifting massively. You see little things like the casting and the people that we’re representing, to the things that we say and to the actions that are depicted and the body language. You’re seeing that happening with businesses hiring more women at the top and different kinds of voices coming out of the woodwork. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.
WTF: Where do you think we’ll be in terms of these changes in five or 10 years, as some of today’s teenagers become tomorrow’s adult-ish consumers?
West: We owe it to them as well as the adults who’ve been on the planet a little bit longer to wake up and learn from them because they’re absolutely right. We can connect over the things that we have in common versus being at odds with each other over the things that make us different.
WTF: You’ve done a “pay parity” ad for Secret. Recently there were Gillette ads that focused on ideas of masculinity. While these are gendered brands, they haven’t necessarily talked about the idea of gender before. What’s changed?
West: That just comes down to how everyone identifies a certain way. For some people, it is very important that the deodorant brand that they use does have a strong point of view attached to it. Like, maybe masculinity is very important to their identity. There are ways to represent in ways that do feel more conventional, that are still valid. I want to buy a razor that’s more genderless and has a more gender-neutral approach – that’s fine, too. I think as long as there’s room out there in the marketplace for different people, that’s great.
WTF: In the Ipsos global study, we see a range of opinions about binary gender roles. What have you seen in your experience?
West: I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve lived in Asia, and a big portion of my genetic makeup is Native American. When I worked in our Tokyo office, a partner of mine that I was working with had observed some interesting body language and behavior [in a client meeting. He said,] “They don’t really see you as a woman. They talk to you like you’re just their creative director.” My dream is to just be seen for who I am as a person.
Wieden & Kennedy
She, her, hers
What the Future is a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades. Read Previous WTF Issues »
Is the future gendered? The present is evenly split.
There are only two genders - male and female – and not a range of gender identities.
I prefer to buy products that are specific to my gender, rather than non-gendered products.
(Source: Ipsos Global Advisor, 2019. Survey conducted between June 3 and 27, 2019 among 23,500 adults in 35 countries. For full datasets, visit future.ipsos.com)