We Need to Talk About Gender Stereotyping in Advertising
Over the last few years, marketers have started waking up to the fact that *surprise!* advertising should be realistic. This is rings especially true when we talk about how women and men are portrayed in ads.
Influenced by the social, political and economic landscape and coupled with increasingly smart consumers who are vocal about each piece of communication they see, brand content portraying women is undergoing a transformation. Showing females as housewives, cleaners and ‘passive’ viewers is far from the truth. Similarly, describing men as the dominant, suit-and-tied breadwinner of the family is outdated.
So, I am wondering, why is gender stereotyping still a thing in advertising, despite all the evidence of equal abilities of the sexes? It’s our collective responsibility as an industry to change the narrative.
Luckily, some brands are actively trying to tell a new story. Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more campaigns targeted towards women with a clear message of empowerment.
In 2017, Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, challenged the stereotypes around the how girls are perceived because of their sex. The video shows both girls and boys being asked about what ‘like a girl’ means to them and how an insult influence their self-perception. Engaging women on emotional, rather than stereotypical feminine care advertising, showed that the brand wants to protect its customers and boosts their confidence. The results were more than positive - 81% of women reclaim “like a girl” as a positive and inspiring statement and achieved 4.5 billion impressions around the world.
Remember “This Girl Can” by Sport England? Yes, the one showing diverse women of all ages and body types enjoying sports? The idea came up from the insight that in 2014, there were 2 million fewer women in sports compared to men due to fear of judgement. One year after the launch of the campaign, the results showed that 2.8 million women have done more activity as a result the ad. Amazing, isn’t it?
In 2017, Bodyform found that 56% of girls said they prefer being bullied at school rather than talking to their parents about periods. The brand tackled the issue head-on with the launch of the “Blood Normal” campaign which broke the ‘period taboo’ and became the first ad showing a realistic-looking period blood instead of a blue liquid. The campaign gained £3.2 million earned media value. Honestly, they didn’t do anything fancy – just showed the world the way it is.
More recently, Nike’s “Dream Crazier” campaign asked women to “show what crazy can do” in response to the different presumptions around men and women’s abilities. The ad highlights iconic moments in women’s sport and shows female athletes who have pushed the boundaries in their field. The ad helped Nike increase its online sales by 31% over Labor Weekend in 2018 and earn $43 million cash value in media exposure.
With 75% of discretionary spending predicted to be controlled by women by 2028, is not a surprise that advertising which resonates with women also makes perfect business sense.
Despite all the great examples of empowering advertising (and there’re so many more!), gender stereotyping is still very much part of marketer’s toolkit. So much so that we need a rule! Yes, really.
In June 2019, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) introduced new rule, according to which, adverts causing gender stereotyping likely to cause harm, mislead or offence, will be banned. This covers all broadcast and non-broadcast adverts, including online and social media.
Two TV ads (for VW eGolf and Philadelphia Cheese) have already been banned due to complaints of harmful stereotyping. Philadelphia soft cheese commercial shows two men who leave a baby unassisted, while the The Volkswagen eGolf advert shows men who go on an adventure while the woman is sitting next to a pram.The first reinforcing the idea of men being incapable of caring for their children while the second portray the woman as passive.
Clearly, the need to move away from gender stereotyping beyond women. Gillette’s "The Best Men Can Be" campaign is a perfect example of that. The traditional stereotypes of dominant, macho men with inappropriate behavior don’t apply anymore. Gillette’s recognised that by tearing up its old and outdated brand messages and showing a modern take on masculinity. Being a man in today’s world also means being emotional, self-reliant and caring. One doesn’t exclude the other.
Why is a rule like the one by ASA needed, you may ask? Advertising is a powerful force in shaping people’s perceptions about the world and their place in it. Harmful stereotypes alter people’s aspirations and judgements, contributing to a broadening inequality gap. The aim of the rule is to clear the industry of negative messages and outdated representation of both men and women.
For me, seeing women portrayed in a realistic way - strong AND vulnerable, emotional AND brave, determined AND caring - gives a sense of power. It makes me believe in my abilities and that I can cope with challenges I may face. These progressive ads are shaping a completely new perception of women - empowered, brave and capable to do anything – equal to men. We don’t need to put each other down, in order to raise ourselves up! Being inclusive and open to the world without putting labels is the right way ahead.
I hope this new rule will at least make us more aware of the need of a new narrative for both men and women - one that is powerful, collaborative and supportive.
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