When two members of senior management at GYK Antler approached me with an opportunity to speak with Digiday about Misty Copeland’s partnerships ranging from Under Armour to Barbie, why brands were seeking her out, and why it matters at all, my first instinct was, “HELL YEAH!”
I am a woman who has worked in advertising for the last five years. I have witnessed agencies and brands alike pull appalling stunts on behalf of women. But honestly, I (initially) said yes because I just love Misty Copeland. She’s a rock star.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, or have been living under a rock, Misty Copeland is a professional ballerina who grew up in poverty, spent her childhood not knowing where she was going to sleep, if she was going to eat, and dancing to Mariah Carey to keep her spirits up. Oh yeah, and she had no experience in ballet until the age of thirteen, when most young girls are considered too developed.
While on average, professional ballerinas retire between their mid thirties and early forties, Misty Copeland is 33, has just been named the first African-American female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, and shows no signs of slowing down. In an industry that notoriously champions petite white women (women who actually look a lot like me), Copeland has pushed back against this boundary her entire life. In fact, she has rightfully shattered it. And that’s not all she pushes back on. Misty Copeland has spent a notable portion of her career pushing boundaries in media, spreading the message that race, gender, and body proportions have NO place preventing any human from doing what they love, or making it their career if they so choose.
When I asked the two (male) members of senior management why they wanted me to speak on this topic it took on a new meaning for me. Their answer was so simple and obvious that I felt silly for asking. “Because we knew you’d have an opinion.” We offhandedly joked (with some element of truth) that a couple of 40-something dudes probably weren’t the right ones to speak to the importance of Misty in the media, but that our agency as a whole knew how important it was. We knew it was an opportunity to have a position on something that not only affects the work we do, but more importantly, the people who cross paths with it out in the wild.
Because whether we want to acknowledge our place in the discourse or not, as media professionals, we have the opportunity to shape the way women are portrayed in advertising. That’s powerful.
What’s so striking about Misty’s collaborations, particularly with Under Armour’s #IWillWhatIWant campaign, is that Under Armour isn’t just selling performance pants. Or soap. Or tampons. Or whatever products brands these days think represent “empowerment.”(Nothing makes me feel more empowered than using Dove to wash away my ugly self perceptions.) Sure, they’re selling a product and they’re using Misty Copeland’s story as an entry point, but they aren’t saying “We know you’re slow as FUCK. Buy these pants!” And that’s why campaigns like Real Beauty never feel genuine.
Every viewer watching Misty Copeland dancing her way fiercely through that rejection letter is watching it through his or her own eyes with some element of relation. It’s not using our physical insecurities as bait, (i.e. “We know sometimes you feel ugly, but our soap can wash all of that away for you!”), but instead, using the universal truth that at some point we’ve ALL been rejected, and it doesn’t mean we suck. They’re marketing in a way that is on par with how they market their male athletes. There’s no bias here. They’re marketing human will and resilience across the board. People over product. They aren’t using the weakness as the focal point and the product as the solution, but instead, they simply aren’t acknowledging failure, struggle, or insecurity as a weakness at all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naive. They’re definitely marketing and selling spandex, but they’re doing it in a way that’s progressive.
Advertisers have made leaps and bounds when it comes to the messages we’re sending women, especially young women, but we still have a long way to go. The words “strength” and “strong woman” have become nebulous. Is Misty Copeland strong BECAUSE she’s a woman? No. She’s strong because she just is. Period. She’s strong because she’s struggled. Because she’s faced and overcome hardship. Because she’s worked her butt off , and put in the hours, and dedicated herself to her life’s calling. Because she’s been told no, and turned around and said, “Watch me.” THESE are the things that make a person strong. And Misty’s vulnerability and openness regarding her personal journey have made it acceptable for anyone watching to fall down and get back up.
But does it MATTER that she’s a woman? Absolutely. It matters because for years, women have been sold sexist garbage at the hands of powerful agencies making decisions for us. It matters because women have been told we’re the weaker sex, the weaker athletes, and hell, we’ve even been told we’re not athletes at all. It matters because we’ve all had heroes, and in an age where athletes, celebrities, and musicians are these untouchable forces on pedestals, young girls look at Misty Copeland and think, “Hey! She looks just like me!” It matters because entire life courses have been altered due to the belief that our weaknesses overshadow our strengths, and WE have let this happen without accepting that one cannot exist without the other.
That’s true for both genders.
Imagine if Misty Copeland had said, “I get it. I don’t look like a “typical ballerina”. I guess I should go do something else with my undeniable talent and potential.”
Yeah. Let that blow your mind.
Back to the article, it ran on Wednesday, and included a quote from the interview. GYK Antler circulated the piece around, and various people offered words of encouragement. What I found to be even more encouraging was the approach GYK Antler took in handing the opportunity off to begin with. They could have (and many agencies would have) said, “This isn’t a fit.” Alternatively, our CEO, CCO, CMO, etc. could have taken the interview and come up with a generalized statement. Instead, they looked for someone within the company who cares, thinks, and writes deeply about it, day in and day out (*waves*).
Empowering your employees to have a voice is super important, and sadly, not something that’s exercised in every agency. If the same 5 people are making all of the decisions, and only their voices are being heard, your company’s work is always going to sound the same. What happened here, is that somebody at Under Armour’s agency of record had an idea to do something completely different by including Misty Copeland in a line up of “traditional athletes”. Choosing a professional basketball player, or a professional soccer player, or a professional snowboarder? That’s a move that brands from Nike, to Adidas, to Redbull, and even Under Armour themselves have exhausted. You don’t look at Lebron James and say, “He’s not an athlete.” Because as the ad says, we are all witnesses. But after watching the Under Armour spot, you’re also not going to look at Misty Copeland and say, “She’s not an athlete.”
More poignantly, young girls won’t see that Under Armour ad and say, “I can’t do that.”
THAT is why this matters.
Link to article: https://digiday.com/brands/misty-copeland-brands-new-favorite-poster-child/