How advertisers target female runners

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This omission of food in these advertisements is disconcerting because runners need to eat —and eat a lot. Running burns more calories than most forms of exercise, but research shows that runners tend to underestimate their caloric needs. Women may also use diet and exercise as punishment for what they might see as their body’s aesthetic failures.

An ideal running body lacking proper fuel is at risk for a variety of health problems. One of the most serious and relatively common conditions among this market is female athlete triad or Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S), characterized by menstrual dysfunction, disordered eating and decreased bone mineral density.

While the thin, masculine body is certainly prominent in these advertisements, femininity is not left out of the dataset. The advertisements do depict femininity, albeit not in the context of high-performance running. When a woman is shaped in a more feminine way, or is dressed or carrying herself as a stereotypical woman would, visual and textual cues position her as an unthreatening competitor.

For example, in an advertisement for a diva-themed just-for-fun women’s race series, a woman runs wearing a tutu and tiara. She looks bored and her feet barely lift off the ground. Since there is no rationale given for the diva race, it gives the impression of an event meant to contain women and their femininity.

Interpreted alongside the story of Switzer’s run, these advertisements are reminders that bodies are a part of history. Situated within an endurance running subculture that initially wasn’t quite sure how it would deal with the “woman problem,” these advertisements are evidence that female endurance runners are still bound by regulations.

While they are free to enter competitive races, the advertisements communicate that women’s success and value are tied to a certain training regime, body type and style of gender expression.

This focus on the body is a hallmark of the neoliberal ideology that colours Western public life more broadly. In neoliberal thinking, a “good” consumer makes the autonomous, rational choices that lead to physical fitness. Not only is fitness assumed to be more attractive, it benefits the state by saving on the economic costs of obesity.

Studying these advertisements, then, is an important task because advertisements tend to shape — and are shaped by — social norms, giving them a place of power in consumers’ lives.

What runners are seeing in the media can tell us a lot about what it means to be a runner today.

If we know nothing else about these runners, we know that there are a lot of them. A year ago, Switzer ran the Boston Marathon on the 50th anniversary of her debut run. At 70 years old, she was the 9,856th woman to cross the finish line.

Because advertisers have no shortage of female endurance runners with which to communicate, it behooves them not to take another 50 years to change the conversation.

Commentary by Carly Drake, a PhD Candidate in Marketing at University of Calgary. She is also a contributor at The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Follow her on Twitter @runcarly.

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