By Kate Rourke

For over 15 years, the representation of women in media and advertising has transformed from a superficial portrayal of beauty, to real women feeling confident and owning their own small business. In 2009, the top downloaded images globally from iStock by Getty Images under the search term “women” reflect a narrow idea of semi-naked, beautiful-looking women in a passive pose.

Fast forward five years, and the story has somewhat advanced to a Caucasian woman fully clothed, travelling on her own. Over the years, the top selling images have evolved toward a more compelling visualisation of women, and today showcase women leading business meetings, women excelling in engineering and science, as well as female athletes.

What’s more crucial is the inclusion of diverse lifestyles, cultures, styling, ages, ethnicities and body shapes, which is becoming better represented within advertising and business communications. As of 2019, the top image on iStock globally was a confident black African woman leading a business meeting – something we saw as a first. Now in 2020, consumers are experiencing significant changes in their lives which we are seeing in our imagery, however we are still seeing women in business, now looking focused and confident, collaborating with male colleagues.

In the last few years, people in Southeast Asia have become more aware of the gender balance of male and female in visual communications, as well as more privy to the positive portrayal of senior men and women. This is a reflection of what is happening in both Southeast Asian culture and society, with gender equality and age on the agenda for many businesses across the region.

In fact, over the past decade, the top selling images in Southeast Asia initially showcase a similar evolution with women predominantly visualised within a family setting as youthful, beautiful and happy and in the last several years for the first time seeing women on equal footing with men in a business environment, although still looking young and beautiful. Similarly, during this time, top sellers illustrated senior women coming to the forefront, showcasing a more positive and refreshed view on aging by living full and vibrant lifestyles with their friends, being healthy and confident in their older years.

From 2019, the top selling iStock image in the region shows that women are now being seen as true collaborators and decision makers within a business environment, with the focus less on their beauty and more about being part of a team. So far in 2020, there has been an increase around visualising women looking after their physical health, as well as women in business, however increasingly in smaller groups and in different workspaces or working from home, which still remains strong to date. Recent searches on iStock, even throughout the pandemic, reveal that image searches around women as members and collaborators of the workplace continue to be on the rise, with ‘Businesswoman’ increasing by 245%, ‘cooperation’ increasing by 525% and ‘teamwork’ increasing by 354%.

Earlier this year, iStock by Getty Images released its global Visual GPS study, which revealed that 84% of consumers across Asia Pacific said it isn’t enough to have people of various ethnicities, backgrounds, and appearances in advertising but that they expect companies to do a better job at capturing people’s true lifestyles and cultures. In addition, another key insight revealed that women in Southeast Asia responded twice as much to imagery of “real” women with “real” body shapes who were confident, and the top two images selected were of women in a business setting.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and despite massive changes in people’s lives, the demand for more diversity in visual communications has only increased. The desire for realness and authenticity has remained strong among people in Southeast Asia, showcasing that there is a clear appetite to want to tell, hear and see inclusive stories.

What this means is small businesses must go beyond tokenistic inclusion to intentionally create advertising and business communications which truly capture people’s authentic lifestyles and culture. Small businesses are in a unique position to take action and have the opportunity to select imagery that is more representative of their customers. In response to this, we’ve found that there are a several effective approaches to take when visualising people’s true lifestyles and cultures:

Pick imagery that evokes an emotion and captures the essence of real life, with real people.

  • Remember to represent all body shapes and types – Our research shows that 77% of consumers in Southeast Asia want companies and brands to show people with all body shapes and types. Select imagery of people whose body shapes and types are realistic and normal of the people around you.
  • Age representation – With the aging population increasing and living longer, the 50+ community now have the most diverse life experiences of any age, some are raising their grandchildren, some are working, some are retired, some are focusing on exercise every day, some are traveling around the world. Look to show the variety of things the 50+ age group are now doing and with meaning. Equally, the younger Gen Z generation are often viewed as too young or inexperienced, move away from that stereotype and show them leading more experienced lives.
  • Gender: Stay away from visual stereotypes – Women make up approximately 42% of the workforce in Southeast Asia, so look to focus on what they are doing and how. Show them as a leader in business, collaborating, working in a team, problem solving, and not just as mothers and caregivers. Also, don’t forget the men! Show imagery of men who are equal team players and collaborators, as well as men who are supportive and caring, both at home and in the workplace.
  • COVID-19: Be sensitive with your image choices on what the rules and regulations are in your area – Be authentic with your imagery during this time. Show the new normal for your area — that could be people needing to work from home, or socially distancing in a work environment or maybe how people are buying and connecting more online.

Kate Rourke is the Head of Creative Insights APAC at iStock by Getty Images.


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