#thisgirlcan: a real women campaign that helps get women into sport

When Sport England launched a campaign 'This Girl Can' aimed at women some loved it. Some hated it. But what do comms people think? We asked a volleyballing head of comms.

by Emma Rodgers

A new Sport England campaign called ‘This girl can’ was launched last week. The campaign claims to be the first of its kind to feature all shapes, sizes and sporting abilities that sweat and jiggle as they exercise.

As Sport England sets out “It seeks to tell the real story of women who exercise and play sport by using images that are the complete opposite of the idealised and stylised images of women we are now used to seeing.”

When Dan asked me if I’d write a blog post on it, I was more than happy to. As a woman who has always exercised or played sport, I was keen to really have a think about what it meant to me both as a comms professional and as an individual who is far from the stick thin woman that is often portrayed doing sport in the media. I’d also watched the video, which has had over 6 million views online already, as it had been shared by many of my female friends on social media before I even knew it was part of a specific campaign. If you haven’t seen the advert yet, you can check it out here.

The insight behind Sport England introducing the campaign is that there are 2 million fewer women (aged 14 – 40) taking part in sport or exercising in the UK than men. That’s even though 75% of women surveyed by Sport England said that they wanted to exercise more. They asked why women were saying sport and exercise was not for them and found that one of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. This included worries about being the wrong size, not skilled enough or not fit enough.

Through use of real women and straight talking phrases, the campaign aims to empower women and get them active.

Personally I’ve always loved sport, whether it was individual, team or group – swimming, dancing, hockey, horse riding, walking up hills, and more recently (well from aged 27) volleyball – which I then went on to play at national league level and 7 times out of 10 with men. It has got harder though as a mum with a full time job to find the time and energy to do what I did, say 15 years ago. For this reason I’m probably not the main target audience for the campaign yet the first time I saw it, I loved it. The soundtrack ‘Get your freak on’ by Missy Elliott, in my view makes you want to move. The accessible body shapes, the spread of ages of the women involved and the way those featured are just getting on and doing – individually, with friends, competitively or at their own pace is I think a positive way to show women – real women – embracing life, achieving and having fun.

The campaign doesn’t hold back in intending to encourage women to face head on their demons. ‘I jiggle, therefore I am’, "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox" and "I kick balls, deal with it" are among the straight talking lines used in the campaign. Their intention to prompt a change in attitudes and help boost women’s confidence.

What do people think?

If the intention of the campaign (of which to date we’ve only really seen the video for) was to raise awareness and prompt debate, then it’s already achieved what it needs to. Most of the news coverage seems to be positive. Listen to Radio 5 live here, read The Independent here and here and you can see support for what it’s aiming to achieve. Both ITV News and the Mirror as part of their coverage are asking people whether it has motivated them to do more exercise (which is a comms person’s dream in my opinion as it’s looking to measure the impact of seeing the video. It will no doubt make a really helpful contribution to evaluating the campaign).

But not everyone believes ‘This girl can’ is the right platform to promote women into sport and exercise. Search #Thisgirlcan on twitter and the next search option is #thisgirlcan patronising. 

It seems that there are three reasons why not everyone likes it

 

  1. The language used is being depicted as patronising and potentially insulting – people citing that the word girl can be seen as much a negative as a positive – for example in the oft used unflattering phase ‘you throw like a girl’.
  2. The way the video focusses on bodies is seen to be objectifying women – claims that while it shows real women it still features narrowly on ‘the body’ itself – not friendship or health or the other benefits that come from sport.
  3. The music – not everyone seems to have been enamoured with American rapper Missy Eliott’s as the track of choice.

 

Jessica Francombe-Webb and Simone Fullagar (a lecturer in sport and education and professor of Sport respectively from University of Bath) have written that the campaign is more about sex than sport in their Guardian article citing two out of three of the reasons above.

In readiness for writing this blog I wanted to know what others thought. It wasn’t scientific in any way but I asked female friends and family and via a running group in a 24 hour period what they thought.

The two posts got 65 comments. There were common themes across all comments.

The positives

Most found it inspiring and felt it focused on being healthy.

Most welcomed that it covered all shapes and sizes.

All felt it reflected real women and the good part of exercising hard.

At least three friends welcomed the benefit for younger girls and that it was good to show their daughters women being strong and sweating to show this was a good thing and to set an example.

At least two mentioned about the fact that when girls approach puberty, it’s hard to keep them interested in sport and to move away from body image and to welcome the body in its natural form.

Three women said that it had actually made them exercise as a direct result.

It prompted further debate about being healthy, the fitspiration idea and how it would get people moving.

The majority agreed it is was beneficial compared to previous marketing for women and that it is positive that it shows women working physically hard and achieving.

 
The negatives

 

  • Were only in approximately 2 per cent of comments overall.
  • Reference to the music – one friend said that ‘Get your freak on’ as the sound track inferred that the women featured were freaks.
  • Unsure of which age it was targeted at.
  • Didn’t like some of the language used particularly the ‘feeling foxy’ and the girl reference. 
  • Felt it could have gone further with challenging sterotypes.

 

With my comms professional hat on

 

  • From a communications point of view, if it was my campaign on the whole I’d be happy and I welcome an initiative that directly targets women. And it’s fair to say, the majority of feedback to date is positive. It’s also got people thinking and talking and generally it has given a feel good factor to women to get moving. Just with the women I spoke to, the fact that a number of them said they were motivated to get active after watching the advert was good. That being said, if I had a chance there are a few areas I’d aim to build on. They include:
  • Messaging – not sure it’s completely clear and may be trying to achieve too much in one campaign. I don’t think it tackled fully the ‘not too skilled to take part’ element for example
  • Who it’s targeted at – would be good to see specific targeting of materials (and maybe this is yet to come) but in my view you can’t be all things to all people – not sure if I was 14 I’d feel the same about this compared to a 39 year old (having said that at least five women on social media said to me that their daughters loved it). People who play sport or people who don’t. I do so am probably more receptive than those who don’t and so likely to act differently as a result.
  • Partners – I’m a head of communications at a local authority. Local authorities have responsibility for public health, have leisure centres, parks, links to schools (it’s also got to be about education surely) as well as various communications channels, etc. – I think I could link into this campaign quite effectively but I haven’t heard about it until it launched and not in my capacity of my professional role which I think misses a trick
  • Show volleyball in the advert – I would say that wouldn’t I?
  • Have a clearer call to action and signposting– tell me what you want to do as a result  and where I can do it
  • Evaluating – I’d love to know what they’re measuring – is it the impact of the video on the people who’ve seen it or is it the longer term increase in the number of women doing sport – probably both but again I’m not 100% of how they’ll know if it’s going to be a success. I’d have liked to see some targets set out as part of this so you could clearly see the difference it’s making

 

The last word

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts, tweet me at @emmarodgers or comment below but for now, the last word I’ll leave to Clare Balding, who is one of the women supporting ‘This girl can’. 

Emma Rodgers is strategic manager communications and marketing at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Picture credit.