NEW YORK -- "You are not a goddess and you are never going to be a goddess," a Nike magazine advertisement affectionately told women last year, adding, "You'll never be perfect."
The myth-bursting message, a far cry from some past commercial images of women, proved to be hugely popular -- not only among women readers, but also to advertising executives desperately seeking ways to reach and portray women of the '90s. That kind of approach has helped boost the sneaker company's sales to women by 40 percent over three years.
But advertising industry executives say that despite the Nike ads and some other attempts to be more realistic about women's lives, the task of finding an effective way to reach women becomes harder than ever at a time when it's increasingly important.
What do women want?
"All of the fantasies of women seem to have been blown up in the last few years, and marketers are trying to understand who women are, what they want, and to speak to them in a very connective and real manner, not in a fantasy manner," said Jennifer Young, senior vice president of marketing at Lifetime Television, a cable network that aims to attract women and ads targeting them.
After years of dodging annoyingly perfect images, condescending stereotypes and quick-fix promises, many women have greeted Nike's more realistic and sometimes inspirational portrayals of women -- including a new TV campaign -- with a sigh of relief and recognition, marketing experts said.
The search for new ways has become more urgent as marketers have begun to recognize women's economic clout as they take a greater share of the market for more items, ranging from sneakers to stereos to sporty cars. About half of all car-buying decisions are made by women now, compared with less than one-third before the 1980s.
"Increasingly women are becoming a greater factor in all marketing," said Ron Anderson, chief creative officer at the ad agency Bozell. "They have a lot more disposable income than they used to have, and they are becoming increasingly a power in the selection, whether it's cars or whatever else."
But the old images have not been replaced by a simple new one, as women have shifted among a variety of roles. Is the prototype for today's woman Murphy Brown or Cindy Crawford, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Roseanne, marketers want to know.
More complex images
"Women's lives are more complicated, so portraying them accurately is more complicated," said Cynthia Round, executive group director at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. "Whenever you choose one image or one portrayal, by definition you are not portraying all of the various complex roles women pick from today."
Some new ads talk to women more of balance and control in their lives, of doing things for themselves rather than for men or families -- and even about how hard it is to do all the things women try to do.
"In a world that is moving very fast, we can find balance in our days and in our diets," says a new TV commercial by Grey Advertising for Dannon yogurt, as a harried woman in a black-and-white office scene enters a suddenly appearing color bubble that expands to include her baby and a park.
Some Liz Claiborne fragrance ads, by the agency Altschiller Reitzfeld, use the theme "Reality is the Best Fantasy of All" and depict real-looking women in everyday situations.
And Nike's three new black-and-white TV spots -- its first TV campaign aimed at women -- include one that says a woman's life should be as much of an announcement as her "selfish and shattering" scream at birth. Another advises, "Don't rush. The world rushes enough as it is."
A TV spot by the agency for Maidenform symbolically depicts the diversity of women with a rapid succession of 30 women's torsos wearing different pins whose slogans range from "Right to Life" and "My Body, My Choice" to "No Pain, No Gain" and "Support Recycling." A new Maidenform "still-life" magazine ad shows a lacy bra lying on a table next to a stack of best-selling books by women authors.
Marketers say there is a danger in trying to appeal to women in politically correct ways because the result could be overly serious or bland ads and indistinct images. "It's not enough just to talk to women, we want to talk to them in a way that is both intelligent and fun," said Carole Christie, group creative director at the ad agency DMB&B; in St. Louis, who has done Michelob ads that give women bigger roles than in most beer ads.
Over the decades, advertisers have shifted among narrow images of women. Those have included woman as housewife and mother, who lives for shiny floors and perfect meals, or as femme fatale, who exists to be sexy and seductive, or executive woman in business suit and attache case, always hailing cabs to the airport, or superwoman, who can easily juggle all that.
The latest changes have not been revolutionary. Plenty of
magazine ads for perfume or panty hose still feature alluring, perfect-looking women, sometimes scantily clad, and romantic fantasies. And commercials for many products are more likely to place women in traditional roles at home than they were even a few years ago, when the women were as likely to be at an office or an airport, ad executives said.
Often, advertisers have made subtle changes to adjust to the '90s.
Keep it ambiguous
One of the tricks is to leave as many questions open as answered so more people can identify with the ad's characters, said Nadeen Peterson, vice chairman and creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, whose clients include Tide. That sometimes means a man or a woman -- not both -- appear in an ad for the detergent with a child. Is it a single parent or is the other parent elsewhere? If the man has a wife, is she at work or off having another baby?
Similarly, if a woman is in an office, is she an executive or a secretary? The viewer is left to imagine.
Ads for women are also tending to focus more on what a woman gets out of a product than what her husband or family get. At the end of a commercial in which a woman bathes with Caress soap, she gets dressed to go out but no man appears at the end of the ad, unlike past versions. "We no longer feel any obligation to include the imagery of the man, because women tell us it's not necessary," said Susan Wood, associate creative director at BBDO.