Empowering female ads

In honour of International Women's Day, check out these spots that encourage women and challenge stereotypes.

Saturday is International Women’s Day and strategy has helped curate some inspiring ad campaigns for women to mark the occasion. We’ve tapped Nancy Vonk, who along with Janet Kestin, helped spearhead Dove’s attitude-changing “Campaign For Real Beauty” and John St. CD Nellie Kim, to help identify some of the country’s best work in this space over the years, and sprinkled in some global spots that hit their mark in 2013.

Kellogg’s/Leo Burnett

It sure sounds funny to hear a man say he has his mother’s thighs, but why shouldn’t it sound just as odd coming from a woman? This 1998 spot for Special K points out women shouldn’t have to obsess over their appearance.

“It’s funny that one of the ads that I can recall the most in this category doesn’t have a single woman in it, yet the message resonates with me loud and clear,” Kim says. “It makes you step back and realize how critical you can be of yourself as a woman, and that it’s  ridiculous. The message is still as strong today as it was a decade ago.”

Also that year, Kellogg’s released this ad commenting on the how the fashion industry sets unattainable standards for women.

“It made me laugh, because it’s true,” Kim says.


In the 2000s, Dove really went all in tackling the perceptions of beauty with its “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Vonk points to the ads of women in their underwear as the launching pad for ads that got in your face. The online Evolution video that followed in 2006 furthered the conversation by showing how much time and effort goes into glamming up models, a practice that distorts our perception of real beauty.

Dove Canada has continued the theme, more recently for Mother’s Day in 2013, releasing a video that shows moms describing themselves to FBI-trained sketch artist Gil Zamora over video conference, accentuating what they see as physical flaws. Then, unbeknownst to the women, their daughters speak separately to Zamora, emphasizing their moms’ positive attributes. The results are two very different portraits that once again show the distortion between perception and reality of real beauty.

Breast Cancer Society of Canada/Zig

In this spot from 2006, the CBCF and Zig offer an easy solution for women who say they’re too busy to examine their breasts. Cam’s got them covered. We’re willing to bet a lot of women found the time to do a self-check after seeing this.

“Maybe it’s not shocking that some of the best work Canada has created for/about women has come out of shops run by women,” Vonk says. “Under Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao, Zig’s communications were set apart, first, for crediting their female target with intelligence, confidence and a great sense of humour.

“No one at Zig worried the target would be appalled by the use of comedy given the serious topic, nor that the viewer would find the directive to do monthly breast exams too in-your-face,” she says. “They knew the viewer very, very well. They also knew a thing or 10 about casting and God being in the details.

Danier Leather/ Zig

If you think you know how this ad is going to end, you’ve got another thing coming, as the female protagonist flips the script on the sly male.

“I don’t think I’ve seen storytelling, casting and direction more perfectly nailed than in this memorable Danier spot,” Vonk says. “The female viewer had a new hero after just 30 seconds – the beautiful woman who blew off the gorgeous, sexy suitor whose confidence was topped by her own.

“I love that she walked away – with style, with humor, with ‘who needs it?’ That leather coat couldn’t have looked better [than] on a woman exuding self R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland/DDB

The message here is it’s easier than one might think to be a big sister but there’s sound advice about being a woman to be found here, Kim says.

“I like these ads because they don’t try to sugar-coat or glamourize what it is to be female,” she says.  “It’s easy to veer into cheesiness whenever you touch on any type of empowerment, so these ads do a really good job at keeping things realistic and light.”

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation/Idea Studio

This spot about living healthier doubles as a rallying cry to celebrate being a woman. The #Tryonenewthing is all about empowerment, urging women to get out of their comfort zone, push their limits and ultimately, enjoy life as a woman.

Sport Chek/Sid Lee

If this Rocky-esque montage of Meaghan Mikkelson training doesn’t make you feel like going for a run, her mom’s pep talk should have you lacing up your shoes.

“Seeing Meaghan Mikkelson train is empowering in and of itself,” Kim says. “Seeing it with the unscripted words of encouragement from her mother make you aware of her source of strength and empowerment.”

Kobo/ John St.

This spot taps the warm feelings many of us have of our mother reading us a bedtime story.

“A lot of commercials depict ‘moms’ as parodies or caricatures of themselves,” Kim says. “This ad is different than those, with its portrayal of mothers in a genuine light – as nurturers, carers and teachers.”

Pantene Philippines/BBDO Guerrero

She’s bossy. Pushy. Selfish. These negative labels get thrown around to describe female leaders too freely while the same traits in their male counterparts get praised. Pantene Philippines tackles this issue by laying the contrasts out in the open while encouraging women to do their thing and ignore the labels.


This spot takes the wrecking ball to the preconceived notion girls need to love pink, “girly” things while boys play with building blocks, and constructs a new narrative about women as future engineers. It first made waves by setting the scene of these girls assembling a Rube Goldberg machine to a reworked, empowering version of the Beastie Boys song “Girls,” which originally featured lyrics like “girls to do the dishes, girls to clean up my room.” The brand swapped that out for this musical version seen here after a legal spat, but we still get the message.

Can you think of any other empowering female ads? Weigh in below.