A Personal Letter to Disney: Be Brave

There is a storm brewing with the Disney release of a toy line featuring its first truly ‘brave’ heroine, Princess Merida. Seems that in an effort to appeal traditionally to little girls’ doll tastes, the rough and tumble star of “Brave” has lost weight, filled out her too tight gown and adopted that doe-eyed sparkle princess look….the look and the life that the animated Merida despised.

I will let anthropologists and psychologists dissect why this is right or wrong. Or just cowardly.

I will turn instead to my own experience, watching the animated film alongside a 7 year old redhead named Soleil.  From the moment that Merida, the cartoon ginger wild child, picked up her bow and galloped through the woods, Soleil’s heart pounded in the saddle alongside her heroine. Proud, cheering, valiant.

For once, the story wasn’t about a cookie-cutter forgotten waif lifted by a prince to a palace. This was true grit, the kind of beauty any girl with guts can achieve. The knowing eyes, the powerful stance, the in-your-face joy of being a girl alive in her own skin spoke to Soleil. And the hair, the untamed, boundless curls that said, “Remember me!” Go ahead, Disney, give our real ‘brave’ Merida a sparkly crown. We need her in the Magic Kingdom. But don’t mess with her curls or her curves or her courage.

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Making a big leap after 40?

MLQ signing humbnail

Got a career dream waiting in your pocket? Most of us do. In 1998, I took a big step to achieve mine and Just Ask a Woman was the result. And the dreams keep growing. Hope you enjoy this piece published today on LearnVest, the fantastic financial support site for young women. Read it HERE!

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Weighing in on Leaning In and Sheryl Sandberg


The news of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Lean In” hit the front page of The New York Times this week. But how will it affect the way women, especially younger women look at work? My blog on today’s Huffington Post gives my two cents. Enjoy, comment, like, disagree…whatever. Love to hear from you! Or leave a comment on Huff Po!

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Mad Women for a Change

Last night I was invited to a terrific party hosted by Ken Roman, former chairman of Ogilvy. The occasion was the debut of a new book by the wonderful creative director and writer Jane Maas. It’s called “Mad Women” published by St. Martin’s Press.  The book takes a fun and honest look at what it was really like for women in ad agencies in the sixties and seventies. Was there really that much sex?  Were women relegated to the steno pool, no matter their ambitions and talent? Jane’s book says, yes and even more so than in the Mad Men series. She interviewed me for the book, not because I was one of those women (I was in grade school!) but because my mom worked in ad agencies throughout those decades. For the record, my mom did her share of typing and shorthand but thankfully avoided the seamier side of the inter-departmental relationships that Jane vividly describes.

In her book, Jane retells my story of how I grew up at a dinner table where storyboards and media plans were normal conversation. My mother loved working in advertising, certainly more than cooking dinner. She once worked for an agency where the Campbells soup account came under fire for exaggerating the pile of vegetables in a soup shoot, so she was in charge of counting exactly how many string beans, peas and carrots were in a can and verifying that the bowl was ‘honest’ before the cameras rolled. I love that she loved her work and she inspired me to follow in her footsteps. Not that it was as racy as the TV drama but advertising did bring out the crazy in a lot of people.

Jane is headed out on a 40 city tour, (OMG!) and having done it myself, I wish her a lot of great applause, as many flight upgrades as she can get and a good night’s sleep or three.

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Don’t Count Us Out. Not Yet. Not Ever.


– An executive in the publishing industry.

“I have so much ambition, so much energy, so much more I want to do, but the guys up top look right past me.”

– 57 year old lawyer, 30 years of practice, 3 kids, one elderly in law at home

“I don’t want a pity party.”

– Superstar women’s basketball coach, 59, announcing she plans to continue coaching despite early onset dementia.

These women all tell different stories with one theme: persistence.

Ironically, persistence has been running in boomer and first wave X-er blood since the early days of our careers. I can remember working at an ad agency when I was about 38 and being told by a senior male colleague, “Well, even though things won’t work out for you, I guess you feel good that the next generation will reap the rewards of the ground you broke.” I jumped out of my skin and down his throat, “I’m happy for whatever the next generation achieves, but I’m just getting started!” That was a time when the word “pipeline” (“There aren’t enough women yet in the pipeline”) was code for “we aren’t going to promote any of the women we already have even if we are promoting less competent men, just because…” Sadly, I still hear that as an excuse for lagging leadership diversity decades later.

Ageism toward women isn’t new, but I had hoped it wasn’t getting worse. To think that 42 is considered old. But in some industries, it is. (I realize it’s not limited to women, but in practice it’s worse for them with the added burden of young and pretty as an unspoken job requirement.) That a woman who is at the prime of her talent is shuffled into the heap waiting for retirement—crazy! Crazy for men, too, but the lawyer quoted above stayed home for about 10 of her kids’ growing up years, so she feels like she’s got a lot more in her to give at an age where her male peers may be dialing down.

And finally, I was struck by today’s heartbreaking but stirring revelation from Pat Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s team, with a record of 1,071 victories, 8 national titles and an Olympic Gold Medal. Only Pat, her school, her team and her doctors can figure out what she ought to do. But I love that she is not giving up. That she is showing what she’s made of, just as she asks her young players to do on the court.

Do not count us out. As consumers. As professionals. As women. Not now. Not ever.

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Do Women Expect The Truth From Beauty Ads? Mary Lou Quinlan In CNN Living

Right on the heels of L’Oreal pulling their latest round of ads depicting  Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington from the UK after accusations of over-airbrushing, CNN set out to determine what level of  truth women expect from beauty advertisements… or whether they expect truth at all. To help them get to the bottom of it, they consulted none other than Just Ask a Woman’s Founder and CEO, Mary Lou Quinlan, who assured them every step in advertising is a deliberate one.

I didn’t mean to shill for the entire beauty industry but someone had to tell the whole truth about beauty ads. While the over the top promises and pictures in the category are cannon fodder for women on a rant, the truth is that the standards governing beauty claims are pretty darn severe. There’s a long list of watchdogs who try to keep brands honest: corporate internal R&D and legal, governmental agencies, the TV network’s standards folks, their competitors who leap on a dime….and the women who decide to buy or not.

I’d like to believe that most of these groups are motivated to do right rather than wrong. And brand managers and their ad agencies have to play the roles of both creative and cop to avoid making the kind of mistake that these ads just made.

The ads with Julia and Christy were what might be called lies of omission. They left out the lines and wrinkles for sure. But worse, they left out the truth of why those two icons are so aspirational for so many women. They are both women with real years of growth, as mothers, as daughters, as businesswomen, as philanthropists, as women whose authenticity is what gives them appeal (though I still wish Julia hadn’t snagged her husband from someone else.) They weren’t as beautiful with experience so totally erased. Whole truth indeed.

To read more about women’s expectations and advertisers’ master plans, check out the full article on CNN Living.

To read more about the newest tricks of the cosmetics industry, check out our take on Sephora’s newest service.

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Can Real Women Finally Sell Dove?

It’s no secret that Just Ask a Woman has been critical about Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. In fact, we wrote an entire chapter about it in our book, What She’s Not Telling You, Why Women Hide the Whole Truth. Why? While women publicly cheered for the campaign, Dove’s sales slowed and then flatlined. Our conclusion:  Women want to know that when they put their money on the beauty counter they are getting a product backed by science and technology and of course, results. It’s hard to sell ‘Love the Skin You’re In’ .

So I was excited this morning as I was going through my own beauty routine and watching the Today show (before I had to give the TV over to Elmo), to see Dove’s new commercial for VisibleCare Body Wash. The commercial reveals a photo shoot with real women getting close-ups taken by a fashion photographer. Then the women are asked to use the body wash for a week and are brought back to see their close-ups…what do  they find? Close-ups of their skin…before and after shots, and the difference is dramatic.

Dove got it right – they bring us real women which stays true to their brand image but they promise us results, in only a few weeks, backed by technology that is clinically prove to visibly improve skin (“highest concentration of Nutrium Moisture™” – I don’t know what that is but I want it now!) The website provides visual proof and information about the science behind the product.

Women love before and after pictures and we love results. The Whole Truth is that real beauty is on the inside and the outside. I love that Dove is finally focusing their message to what matters most with women and I bet they’ll love what it does to their bottom line.

I just downloaded my $1 off coupon from the website and will be headed to Duane Reade on my way home tonight!

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Is Dr. Pepper Sexist Or Brilliant?

At a recent barbeque thrown by a friend and her now-ex boyfriend, said boyfriend was in charge of getting drinks for a mixed crowd. He did his job, and soon enough the table was creaking under the weight of assorted sodas—full calorie sodas. And I couldn’t help but think: What are the girls going to drink?

Dr. Pepper Ten is trying to feed both sexes from the same bottle. It’s Dr. Pepper’s ten-calorie answer to Coke Zero, which has by now been co-opted as a “girly drink.” Dr. Pepper hopes that through masculine (read: capital letters on a muted grey label) packaging and a testosterone-fueled ad campaign including the creation of “man caves” across the country and heavy-handed tag line “It’s Not For Women.”

Soda, Sexism, and Hypersensitivity.

It would be only too easy to operate from the default setting of “offended,” but there two issues with that: First, it’s funny. One of the commercials (below) includes the line “So you can keep the romantic comedies and lady drinks.” And let’s not lie—it’s funny. On the heels of the similarly laugh-out-loud line “Catchphrase,” it’s oddly reminiscent of a toweled Isaiah Mustafa (the Old Spice guy!), who deliberately appealed to women to sell a men’s product.

The other issue is that from a marketing standpoint, targeting men will reach a larger audience than explicitly targeting women. Women are more likely to buy products made for men. Think about a man wearing pink, and a woman wearing blue. For that matter, think about a woman wearing pants, and a man wearing a skirt. Who is judged more harshly? We always say that the best way to reach women as customers is to create a product or service that is useful to everyone. And despite the brand’s comic exclusion of women, chances are that future Dr. Pepper Ten cans will hit the recycling bin bearing lipstick marks.

But Diet Dr. Pepper was always good enough for me—and distinctly secondary to Diet Coke. What do you foresee for the drink that’s “not for women?”

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Will Social Media Hijack Women’s Trust in Word of Mouth?

This title probably gives me away. I’m becoming a digital doubter. While I’m a believer in the power of technology to connect consumers and to enable them to share their customer experiences, I want to challenge the deterioration of the value of online word of mouth among women.

I am worried that our online marketing strategies are killing WOM, the gold standard of trusted endorsement by making it too easy, too anonymous, too paid. I’m concerned that buyers will become either unwitting sandwich boards or simply shills for brands. And I’m wondering if consumers, especially the all powerful female consumers, might begin to shut out the din of too many recommendations without merit or trusted sources.

If women are paid or spiffed for every referral they give, whether it’s a laundry detergent or a dentist, at what point do their friends start to feel they’ve sold out? At what point, does that brand start to look like it’s just buying customers, not creating believers? Is social media ruining what was once a good thing?

I’ll focus on women, not only because at Just Ask a Woman, we’ve studied them for 12 years but because women are the more active online bloggers, gamers, voters and emailers, not to mention, the more powerful gender as measured by their online (and in-person) purchasing dollars. Fifty two percent of women have a facebook or a myspace account and 18% of them update their pages at least once a day, according to 2009 studies. In recent research we conducted, 56% of first time moms share intimate information about their pregnancy with other moms to be online. But intense usage isn’t restricted to women in their 20s or 30s. Women 55 and above comprise the fastest growing demographic on facebook. Their membership is up over 175% in 2008, significantly higher than men of that age group.

Women’s propensity to recommend products isn’t new. Women have always passed the word about products they liked.  For decades, a coupon or a freebie was enough at least to attract their attention, if not their loyalty. But things are different now. Marketers are in even hotter pursuit of women’s endorsements so they use social media and mobile technology as the new enablers of a national conversation about brands, good and bad. And that conversation is becoming as mindless and quick as a click.

Women’s warp speed WOM online

At Just Ask a Woman, we’ve tracked women’s power as brand ambassadors and brand killers. Women love to tell other women about good product experiences and just as willingly (even more so!) will dish about bad ones. Back when we started our business, research showed that women will tell 4 to 7 people about a good experience and 7 to 13 about a bad one. Worse, if they have a really awful product or service incident, they will retell the story in all its gory detail for an average of 23 years.

Of course, all this telling used to be face to face over the proverbial picket fence. Now we’re drowning in the online bottomless pit of instant passalong kudos and criticisms. Have a complaint about a hotel? Why go to the trouble of writing a handwritten letter to the company CEO when you can post your rant about your unmade bed on tripadvisor.com in seconds? Someone treat you badly at GAP? Don’t wait to talk to the department manager, just tweet out your frustrations and get shoppers all around the mall ticked off.

If you like something, anything, just click “like it!’ and you join hundreds of like-minded souls on facebook. You’ve probably done it yourself. How many of us have retweeted something that we didn’t even fully read or view? We click “recommend” as casually as we hit delete. But like hitting “reply all”, unconsciously passing along viral brand material risks ticking off more people than we please.

Believing Whole Truths or Half Truths?

Technology has made it possible to recommend a product to millions of people even when we’re unaware we’re doing it.  With automated ‘recommendations’ brands can use social media to do the actual work of getting the word out so we don’t have to. For example, go to your favorite frozen yogurt shop and buy a cone. If you’ve registered for a frequent customer card in the past, swipe it at the register and the yogurt company will let foursquare members know that you enjoyed your visit to the store at 3rd and Main. Vaseline Intensive Care set up a Dry Skin Relief Patrol that will send you a free sample if you share the name of another friend with dry skin who ought to know about the brand.

Pretty much every launch in recent months includes some kind of social media platform to ‘use’ consumers to spread the word in exchange for contest entry or freebie.  Not an earth-shaking bit of marketing news, but this can lead to what we call Half Truth marketing sabotage. Think of it this way: Her Half Truth is “I really liked this brand.” Her Whole Truth: “I don’t even remember that I signed up to post this stuff and now the product isn’t working for me anymore.” (Unfortunately, her friends don’t know the difference.)

Interestingly, most women tell us that they do trust what other women say online, especially if an opinion emerges multiple times.  This coincides with a phenomenon that we unearthed years ago, women’s reliance on their custom made Board of Directors, the circle of advisors they’ve collected for their expertise on various topics. She counts on this ad hoc group for information and decision making. She might have a board for travel or finance or parenting issues. But now, her board is populated with lots of people she’s never even met.

Today’s Board may be a far flung group of strangers who share an interest or an advocacy or a talent ripe for access on her keyboard or iPad. If she relies on a neighborhood community site or the blog of a well-regarded author, at least she’s connecting to someone with an identity. But women also turn to the huge anonymous blogosphere and twitterverse for opinions and ideas. Without the benefit of a calling card, women still count on what those other women suggest, especially other mothers, because as they put it: why would a mother lie about something that has to do with a child? What would be her motivation to exaggerate or to pass along a suggestion she didn’t believe in? What, indeed?

Endorsements for Love…or Money?

In 2011, we are light years beyond the innocence of original word of mouth endorsements. Thanks to too much ‘pay for play’, it’s hard to know if a thumbs up came from someone genuinely impressed with a product or service, or someone with her fingers in the cash register. Some mom bloggers have particularly been taken to task for being too willing to accept merchandise, trips and other honors in exchange for a good review. Thanks to recent uproars on the subject, the leaders of the women’s blogging community have been pushing for a code of ethics and standards of behavior that align them as either journalists or serious reviewers or else, Moms for sale.

Even the gravy train of brand swag may be slowing down since marketers are able to get endorsements without giving away the store because there are plenty of consumers who just do it for the ego validation, the community, the sense of ‘being heard.’ What a boon for marketers to get the big payoff of customer endorsement without paying a single dime beyond creating the site or promotion!

As more and more customers pile on the social media “brand”wagon, prepare for dangerous curves ahead. If the ingoing premise was that social media would engender viral word of mouth, how long before these cyber “say so’s” are ignored? And another watch out for marketers: recently we’ve heard brand managers claim that they are measuring success of their campaigns by the number of “likes” on their brand’s facebook page. Who’s to say if those are genuine consumer fans (no wonder facebook eliminated that term!) or just employees and their friends driving up the numbers for other reasons?

A Prescription for Truth

Even with all these doubts, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that I am anti-social media or despairing that no good can come from all this. Companies are under the digital global microscope every day now. Recalls can’t hide in the dark. Consumer complaints cannot be filed behind some dusty counter, never to be fixed. Women’s voices can become the powerful police of a better marketing world. But not if marketers have bought them out.

What’s the remedy? Forewarned is fore-armed. Be sure that the consumers you enlist have really tried and enjoyed your product. Keep your processes transparent. Dare to re-ask your enlisted customers just how happy they continue to be and fix it when they aren’t.  If you can send samples or coupons directly to their friends who request them, work to earn those relationships. And you need to deliver on a great brand experience when that new customer comes your way from a social media referral.

There is nothing more powerful than a heartfelt endorsement from a woman. But the overkill of the social media tactic could be a short term win with long term consequences. And, if no one believes your “real person online testimonials”, what will that say about you?

This article is also available at Canvas8.

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All Hail the Citizen Ad Critic!

Last night I spent about five hours live blogging for the Wall St. Journal as part of an “expert” panel on advertising. The combined crowd of global creative directors, a sports blogger, comedy writer/actress and this women’s marketer were recruited to weigh in on the good, bad and ugly of the SuperBowl.

With the spots hammering me at the pace of four spots about every three minutes, I felt less like I was judging commercials and more like if I was taking the SAT verbal test in public. While I banged away at the keyboard under fire, guests came and went from my apartment, one of the football teams won and a lot of artichoke dip vanished. But when the last game point and commercial were scored, I sat back and thought, Where is this all going?

Because while our panel was bringing years of experience to assess the ads, we were dwarfed by a running commentary on the WSJ site, as well as on Facebook, #brandbowl on Twitter and thousands of other homegrown communities. There was clearly a national divide. “Experts” balked at the patriotic spots. Citizens loved them. Baby’s head smashed against plate glass?—Experts groaned but a big LOL from the peanut gallery. Guys acting gay over cheesy fingers? Hahahahahah. Animals, violence, gratuituous sex, YEAH!

Is the day of the ‘expert’ way over? Snarky anonymous tweets are creating comic geniuses (or not) who are unimpressed by anything big brands can serve up. Anyone who’s posted a burping baby or a dog tangled in a Venetian blind cord sees themselves as way funnier than any zillion dollar commercial from some snotty Mad Men.

I sympathize with the clients and agencies, worrying every detail , while risking millions on the game spots. All that planning. All that time and talent. All that money. And what does it come down to? Pretty much the same platter of slapstick, wise-ass humor, cheap gags and testosterone. I would like to believe that this isn’t the dumb-ification of America as ads cater to an ever-more lowest common denominator master. Maybe John Q. Public can do better (though the Doritos spots belie that idea.) But what if we are at the start of a creative revolution where ‘real people’ will create more stirring, brilliant, entertaining and smart content universe. I hope so.

For now, guess it’s groundhog day at the SuperBowl. Literally.

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November 22, 2019
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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