Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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Using real women in imagery: Future Publishing’s story

In late 2019, Future Publishing, the publicly listed UK and US publisher with 200 brands and a global monthly audience of 390M, launched an initiative that would dramatically change its portrayal of women within its woman&home brand.

The campaign, perhaps not surprisingly entitled ‘REAL’, invited readers to casting sessions in London and Manchester (UK) with the aim of replacing commercial photo models with genuine readers who were reflective of the woman&home readership. Part of Future’s goal was to use the campaign as a litmus test as part of a greater longer-term vision to ‘diversify representation’ across all its magazines and digital platforms.

In a letter to readers at the time, Miranda McMinn, woman&home’s editor, wrote, “They used to call us ‘women of a certain age’. What a horribly disparaging, belittling phrase. We know we’re older. We’re proud of it, actually.”

“What we need is role models so that we can feel entitled to feel attractive in our own right. Not ‘good for our age’. And not for the benefit of other people, either – we couldn’t give a hoot about them – but for ourselves.”

Miranda McMinn, Editor, woman&home

The outreach dovetails with Future’s own research of over 4,000 women in the UK and US, which found that 8 in 10 women aged 40 plus still don’t feel that there are many women in the media who look like them. The same research found that 68% of women believe the image of women in advertising is still very stereotypical, with 63% of women agreeing there are too many young-looking women shown in the media.

Future received well over 2,000 submissions which were pared down into two casting sessions, each involving 90 of its readers in spring 2020. Commitment to including as many real women as possible meant no one was turned down: all attendees have joined a list to be called upon when suitable shoots arise. The publisher was meticulous in its legal provisions, ensuring that everyone who came to the casting signed general model release forms, and those selected also needed to sign a ‘Future All Rights’ model release form. According to Future, “so far there have been no issues”.

woman&home models from L to R: Avril Read, Emma Sington, Liz Hall and Lucy Bradley

Commenting on the legal provisions, Future’s Group Editor in Chief, Catherine Westwood told WNIP, “Future felt it was important to apply an equal level of care and professionalism as any other casting. Our in-house lawyers have been involved at every stage and we used existing model release forms for signings both during the sessions and for women who applied in lockdown. The legal team has also drawn up a bespoke contract that is issued to those who have modeled already and are set to appear again for other initiatives.” Payment terms, according to a Future spokesperson, are “in line with the industry standard”.

Despite the inevitable disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, the campaign to use readers as real-life models has paid dividends for Future. Not only was the initiative warmly received by woman&home’s readership, but commercial partners were also very keen to be involved with what they viewed as ‘the real representation’ of women. 

Working with ‘REAL’ models showcases our at-home hair colour in its true form and allows us to connect authentically with the Woman & Home readers.

Clairol spokesperson

Such has been the overall success of the initiative, Future has its sights on the use of real-life models for some of its other publications including Woman’s Own, Woman’s Weekly, Woman, and Simply woman&home.

To create original photography for its sites that users can relate to, woman&home now only shoots with women who reflect their audience, and gives everyone the opportunity to appear in its magazines and websites.

Catherine Westwood, Group Editor in Chief, Future Publishing

Westwood continues, “Our audience will buy into our recommendations, but have told us of their frustrations at seeing young, very slim models who represented an unachievable look in terms of fashion and beauty images, so the feedback on the REAL initiative so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Even during the challenges of the pandemic, we have received hundreds of applications and are now in the process of building up to a second phase of recruitment.”

That’s not to say it’s all been plain sailing, far from it. The restrictions imposed on travel and work during the Covid-19 pandemic have added a considerable layer of complexity as Westwood readily admits, “Lockdown has been very challenging – as we had to adhere to strict guidelines we were unable to do as many photoshoots as we had wanted. However, we were able to make it work; in one instance we supplied the clothes to their home address and the model’s husband took the photographs on his mobile phone. Once the numerous restrictions on movement are lifted, we plan to further our nationwide casting sessions, resume more shoots and take the REAL initiative onto the next level, rolling out across even more brands.”

And lessons for other publishers thinking of doing the same thing? “Just go for it! Such projects might be labour intensive, but they are well worth the effort on all sides.”

Our relationship with our readers has never been closer and we are extremely proud of what the project has achieved so far, with no plans to stop here. We hope this sets a positive example that many more will follow.”

Catherine Westwood, Group Editor in Chief, Future Publishing

In related news, Future this week announced the acquisition of Marie Claire US. Previously a joint venture between Hearst Magazines and MC International, the new license agreement sees Future produce Marie Claire US in addition to Marie Claire UK. With an audience reaching nearly 17.5 million monthly unique users, Marie Claire US expands Future’s reach to 22 million readers in the US Women’s Lifestyle Vertical and to just under 30 million readers globally across all of its women’s lifestyle brands.