Are extreme sports brands failing in their representation of women?

by Guest Contributor Kristanne Roberts | April 03, 2019

Author: Rio Cook

Kristanne Roberts
Global Development Director - Brand Lift Insights

A few weeks ago Rio Cook from our Neuroscience practice touched on the instinctive associations people hold towards feminism, and questioned whether advertising portrayals might be widening the gender gap. But that gap is informed by everything a brand does and extreme sports brands in particular are failing to treat women with the respect they deserve.

It’s not news that pro riders as women are represented by their ability to model a swimsuit or sell makeup, rather than just on their athletic abilities alone; while men are continually shown as strong athletes first and foremost. This was typified by the post Karen Banting shared on her blog after being outraged by Billabong’s homepage visuals which sexualised women. Billabong may have addressed the issue on their homepage, but you only have to visit the Instagram pages of any of the big extreme sports brands to see these stereotypical representations are still played out in stark contrast.


There is an underlying assumption to the imagery used by these brands that women care more about the way they look than how they perform, which proliferates beyond their advertising and communications strategies into the products themselves. In my experience, women’s clothing is generally technically inferior, and usually in shades of pink and powder blue, as if we are allergic to orange or green! Either these brands have access to some (inaccurate) data that shows men’s and women’s needs as fundamentally different, or they are making some pretty wild assumptions. For instance, assuming that we take our handbags with us on the slopes, and so have no need for pockets in our snowboard kit! Whatever they are, there’s a need to change.

The mismatch between brand and customer expectations is not unique to the extreme sports industry. Our recent AdReaction report showed that 91 percent of marketers think they are creating advertising that features positive and attainable female role models, while 76 percent of female consumers believe the way they are portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. There’s clear disparity, on which brands have an opportunity to capitalise for the good of their customers and society.

As brands promoting a counter culture extreme sports brands are making the same mistakes as many mainstream brands in alienating a large portion of their audience. And on a broader level, all of this has an impact on how women, and particularly younger women, perceive themselves. Self-esteem is a huge barrier to women entering sports and driving home the message that you need to be model-pretty to wear the clothes and step onto a board isn’t empowering.

There is however an opportunity for these brands to not only engage a broader audience and increase participation in sports (and their sales) through more realistic gender portrayals, but also to show they are listening to their existing customers when we say – please can we have something other than pink next season! Are extreme sports brands failing to represent women authentically? Please share your thoughts.

Leave a comment