From Jill Clayburgh to the Present: The Image of Single Women in Marketing

July 5, 2011

The date: March 5, 1978.

The film: An Unmarried Woman.

The Milestone: Marked the first time Hollywood attempted to paint an accurate portrait of a woman going through divorce, with all of its trials and triumphs. Jill Clayburgh, who played divorcee Erica, inspired women to take charge of their lives, taking a proactive role in achieving fulfillment rather than staying in less-than-desired marriages.

The Impact for Marketing: You would have thought that this would have opened the floodgates of strategies targeting the new single woman demographic — but it did not.?

When Clayburgh died recently, the only way I could pay tribute to her was to re-watch An Unmarried Woman. I reflected on the revolutionary storyline and how times have changed for women since 1978. At the time, Clayburgh was heralded as a feminist icon because she showed that a man is not the end-all-be-all of life. She represented a line of actresses of her generation — including Ellen Burstyn, Carrie Snodgress and Marsha Mason — who depicted characters reflecting the smart, capable and gritty, sometimes neurotic, quality of the new feminism. ??

Clayburgh’s character is now no longer a rare exception, but more of a norm, A third wave of feminism beginning in the 80s stressed diversity in approaching life-career, motherhood, etc. (The second wave, from the 60s through late 70s, focused on inequalities, including in the workplace and reproductive rights; the first wave, starting in the early 20th century, was concerned mainly with challenging legal obstacles, including voting and property rights.) As a result, women have experienced individual empowerment —financial, emotional, and social. Women are free to embrace whatever combination of roles they envision for themselves. They are no longer dependent on being in a relationship to be fulfilled.

Today, there are more than 51 million single women nationwide and their buying power is significant. They account for 50% of solo travelers; 75% own cars. According to the National Association of Realtors, single women purchase 21% of homes while single men purchase only 9%. 

Despite these statistics — and more than 30 years after Clayburgh portrayed the growing breed of independent women — marketers based in the U.S. still do not recognize single females as drivers of the national economy. Instead of marketing directly to single women, marketers often develop campaigns featuring women glowing from motherhood, with their boyfriends or as part of a family. These myopic campaigns group women into one archetype, overlooking single women. ??As marketing expert Melanie Notkin, CEO of, a website for women without children, surmises, “when [marketers] want the visceral feeling to be happiness, they’re going to show what we qualify as a happy lifestyle, which is family. And people often assume that women who are not married are terribly unhappy.” 

University of California Santa Barbara Professor Bella DePaulo, author of the book Singled Out, agrees. She believes there is a wide gap between the empowerment of single women and marketers’ perceptions. As DePaulo writes, marketers’ visions of the single woman’s plight are illustrated in a variety of overwrought stereotypes, including:

  • assuming that what single people want, more than any particular product, is a soul mate
  • believing the myth that singles live narrow, constricted lives and are lonely
  • stereotyping singles in their ads as losers or old maids or
  • treating singles like they don’t even exist

Marketers in the U.K. however, recognize a distinction. In fact, they even invented the term “freemale” to describe this demographic. They recognize that single women are no longer of the “Bridget Jones” ilk, whose sole obsession is being in a relationship. Freemales are characterized as women who opt for a single life, valuing friendships rather than pursuing extended romantic relationships. Some freemales also choose to live childfree, choosing not to have children for a variety of reasons, while others decide to become single mothers.??

But a few marketers in the U.S. are getting it right — with commercials that depict single women as intelligent, hard workers, and most of all, happy.  Examples include these commercials:

  • Lowe’s ad featuring a single woman who is reviewing her bathroom remodeling checklist
  • Chevrolet depicting a woman driving carefree after a breakup, exclaiming, “He said he was a professional student.  No! Of life.  Oh, I’m so sorry. Single lane ahead. I’ll be in that lane.”
  • Chase Bank ad where a woman tells her co-workers about the advantages of Chase rewards

These ads are just a start. Savvy marketers will make the portrayal of today’s “unmarried women” in an accurate light a main priority.  

Posted by: 
Alexandra Patchen

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