How I’m using advertising to #fthepaygap

How I’m using advertising to #fthepaygap

CannesRachel Pashley of J Walter Thompson London explains the agency’s provocative new campaign supporting equality at work

At the Cannes Festival of Creativity this year, The Fearless Girl created by McCann was one of the most highly awarded campaigns. “Where’s the brand?” snarked some detractors, but the initiative itself – aimed at raising awareness for women in leadership and addressing the paucity of female board representation – has stimulated unprecedented discussion and awareness. This is what good advertising does.

For International Women’s Day this year at J. Walter Thompson London we launched the FThePayGap campaign, an initiative aimed at raising public consciousness and blood pressure around the fact that even in 2017 the majority of women do not get equal pay for the work they do.

The global aggregated pay gap stands at around 24 per cent according to UN Women. In the UK it stands at 19.7 per cent – it varies by country and sector, but the point is there’s a gap. Women doing the same work as their male peers get paid less. If you think about it for any length of time – not sure about you, but it makes me angry. It’s when I think about the corollary of the pay gap, the long-tail effect, that the rage kicks in. In fact, getting paid less for the same work is an insult.

One of the big reasons why women are significantly more likely to retire in poverty is the pay gap, the cumulative impact of having less money each month to put aside for old age. It’s one of the reasons some children go hungry or without heating because mothers, often in part-time work, get paid less.

Now, there are various theories put forward to explain the gap, some more spurious than others, but much of it boils down to unconscious bias: men’s work is valued more highly. A Catalyst survey revealed that Female MBA graduates attracted a starting salary of $4,600 behind their male peers, and a 2012 study by Yale University revealed that the identical CV when positioned as female attracted a salary of $4,000 less than the same CV with a male name.

When it comes to doing something about it, consciousness is an issue again. Many people, both men and women, simply aren’t aware or “awake” shall we say to the pay gap issue, and that’s a problem: lack of awareness leads to lack of action. If you’re an employer or a boss with line reports, when was the last time you considered the possibility that a pay gap might exist?

Equally, while many women assume they may be fairly paid, when was the last time you checked? Looked at, say, an industry benchmark? We felt that while public policy is one thing, the only way to really put a dent in the pay gap is to agitate for change, to make everyone male or female intolerant to the existence of a pay gap and to do their part: we needed to spread the rage.

Our FThePayGap campaign played with the idea that taking away 25 per cent of anything is offensive, and using text we blanked out a quarter of the copy for iconic phrases. The strength of the ideas is that your brain or unconscious bias is hardwired to “autocomplete” an offensive meaning, but on closer inspection the real meaning emerges. F….Girls becomes Fund Girls, the slightly more risqué Fill your Purse and perhaps the most effective execution of the campaign being Girls Want Hard Cash. 

To illustrate the speed at which advertising moves, we got the campaign up and running in 48 hours, with national digital 6 sheets donated through Maxus and Clear Channel. Thanks to Instagram, Twitter an influencer campaign and the tireless efforts of two hardy supporters from the London office handing out T-shirts from a big pink suitcase in the heat of Cannes, the campaign has attracted something of a social following under #fthepaygap, and we’re now selling the T shirts at, with all profits donated to women’s charities that are working to fight the pay gap.

To people who think that all advertising still has to be hawking a product, let me say this: advertising is in the business of selling ideas through creativity, paraphrasing Walter Landor, “if products are made in the factory and brands in the mind”.

What we do exists in the public consciousness, advertising is part of and shapes culture: to my mind therefore it is perfectly legitimate for those ideas to make a powerful comment on culture and society at large. Think back to the 1960s, when the ad industry supported the civil rights movement, and in the 1980s, the great Benetton campaigns commenting on attitudes towards HIV and racism. Unlike public policy, which takes decades to enact change, with power in the hands of the few, advertising moves at the speed of a pen – or a mouse – and hands power to everyone. We can all participate (and look good while doing it in this case).  

Maybe there are a few industry people content to sell the washing powder, collect the pay cheque and go home every night (although, to be fair, I don’t see many) but we at JWT London definitely don’t see it that way. Working in an industry where we have access to millions of screens, where we can create ideas to infect culture, why wouldn’t you want to create a positive legacy?

The work we do as part of Female Tribes is unapologetic in our mission to change the cultural narrative, to work with clients and NGOs to create ideas, products and services to change the way the world works for women: why be a spectator when you can shape the future?

Rachel Pashley is global planning director and creator of Female Tribes at J Walter Thompson London