According to author Rena Bartos, a senior vice president for the J. Walter Thompson advertising company, a "quiet revolution" has transfigured the lives of American women but has barely begun to penetrate the consciousness of the advertising industry. Her book, "The Moving Target," is an account of those changes, and a brief aimed at her colleagues arguing that advertising should acknowledge both the shifts that have occurred and the diversity among women.
Back when the revolution that would make working women the majority and radically alter the attitudes of nonworking women was beginning, advertisers were still designing marketing campaigns for women aimed at "any housewife, 18 to 49." When it began to sink in that all women were not housewives, Bartos feared a new stereotype would arise -- the single prototypical working woman. So she went about educating her colleagues on the subject of women.
This book grew out of that effort. The title is a duck-hunting metaphor. To catch a bird on the wing, a hunter needs to aim where the bird is going, not where it has been. Subtitled "What Every Marketer Should Know About Women," it might also be called "What Every Woman Should Know About Marketers."
The writing in the book is only serviceable. Even so, it can be compelling in the same way that the "Statistical Abstract of the United States" can, by transforming old perceptions with new data. Bartos has compiled a dramatic picture of how women and their roles have changed that goes beyond the staggering statistics about women in the work place. From 1950 to the present, while most of the women now in the work force were growing up, at every 10-year interval the percentage of women in the work force grew at a steady increase of 20 to 21 percent. By 1980, more than half of all women in the United States 16 and older were working.
That information alone suggests that the traditional image of women as housewives is outdated. But Bartos adds more evidence: "Once we remove the schoolgirls and grandmothers from our consideration, we see that the ratio of housewives to working women is a dramatic 41 to 59 percent . . . A woman who is old enough to be out of school and young enough to be unretired is one and a half times more likely to be at work than staying home and keeping house."
As for the change in women's minds and self-perceptions, they no longer define themselves by whose daughter or wife or mother they are, she argues. One example is the contrast between the wife of former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, a lawyer and a mother who prefers to use her maiden name, and Margaret Trudeau, a throwback.
"Ironically, even in her current separation from Trudeau, her identity is defined only in terms of her former relationship to him. Without it, no one would be interested in whether or not this unknown young woman danced at Studio 54 or not," says Bartos. "This is a classic example of derived status."
Bartos, after looking at both working women and women who stay at home, developed her own categories: women who view their work as "just a job," women who view their work as a career, women who plan to stay at home forever and women who are at home but plan to work.
In some respects, the career women and "plan to work" women have a lot in common. In other respects, the "plan to work" women are more like "stay at home" housewives. But there is no pattern. These are very different groups who react differently as consumers of items ranging from cereal to television shows to stocks and bonds.
Where Bartos found striking similarities among these four groups was in how they reacted to advertising. "Whether or not women live in the new life styles, they respond to the imagery of new life styles in advertising . . . They responded positively to women in work situations and in achievement situtations . . . They were aware that women are not all cut out of the same mold . . . The approaches that implied respect for women's intelligence and judgment as consumers were well received."
Bartos also found that none of the groups of women liked advertising that was sexist in tone -- that referred to women as girls or suggested they were helpless without a man.
To critics who say that buyers complain about commercials but buy the products anyway, Bartos responds that it may be because they have no choice. When some marketers try a more sharply defined, more respectful approach to women, other marketers may find themselves left behind.
Many of the points Bartos makes will strike women reading the book as so obvious as to not need saying. For instance, "even the most traditional-minded housewife resents condescension and put-down." But take a look at a few commercials.