How do you solve a problem like... gender stereotypes in advertising?

The Drum 23 Feb 2021 08:30
We asked the industry what they’re doing to tackle gender stereotypes

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

This week, we’re looking at gender stereotypes in advertising. While we’ve heard a lot about attempts by advertisers to abandon the use of gender stereotypes entirely, such as the Unstereotype Alliance, this cause is far bigger than a single scheme or campaign.

Just last week, a survey by the Campaign Against Living Miserably and Joe Media found that two-thirds of British men thought negative gender stereotypes were a source of psychological damage.

So, we asked the industry – from activists to strategists, creatives to chief executives and media owners to data scientists – what actions their organizations have been taking lately to tackle the use of gendered stereotypes.

For me, it begins well before you get anywhere near an ad.

Ban the word ’guilt’, which is used disproportionately towards women to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat, what we shouldn’t and shouldn’t watch, and how we should feel about it. Food messaging of ’guilt free’, ’no guilt’ and ’low guilt’ perpetuates the idea that women should always be on diets, should always seek out the diet version of real foods and that we should feel shame when we stray.

Consumers and brands are being challenged to think bigger. Since last summer, we have been conducting rigorous, multi-layered research and interviews, and tapping into The New York Times’ vast first-party data to outline recommendations around gender as part of the work behind Pivotal, our thought leadership platform. Through this research, we’ve discovered the nuances of how consumers think and feel about gender, and how brands can use this as an opportunity to embrace this knowledge and understand what it means for a brand to be relevant today.

You solve a problem like ending the use of gender stereotypes in advertising by being brutally honest about what’s happening behind the camera as much as what is being shown on camera.

If we only think about gender stereotypes in advertising with just a cursory check on the scripts being written by an all-male team, based on a male planner’s brief, shaped by a male creative director, who then hand it over to one of their favourite male directors – there’s little hope.

The issue in advertising is clear: the lack of diverse representation throughout the creative process yields stereotypical, harmful and homogenous content. With the right tools, people and information, the industry can effectively overturn negative portrayals with accurate depictions of our world.

What we’re seeing at agencies is a move towards inclusion to drive the impact of creative, such as Mediacom’s move towards ’inclusive planning’. Not only do we need to steer our campaigns away from stereotypes in the creative, but we also need to think similarly to address where and how we are targeting.

Our work as creative marketers stands in a consumer lens that is as intersectional as it is non-binary. Abolition of gender stereotypes that are as archaic as mad men leaders and the further gender binary narrative tropes that limit people’s individuality will be the only way to reach true inclusion. Beyond the tokenism of a few campaigns, we can’t expect creative that ’smashes the patriarchy’ without actually doing it.

It is easy to claim that advertising is a reflection of culture, mirroring the wider traits of society. Those of us that work in the industry understand advertising is culture and our influence comes with accountability. This is about diversity, the range of people represented on our screens, but it is also about breaking away from shorthands and stereotypes that are at best lazy, at worst damaging.

To end gender stereotyping in our advertising, we need to end it in our agencies – that begins with creating safe spaces to authentically represent ourselves at work. I have the privilege of working in an agency where my identity and the identity of others is respected. That carries through in conversations, in client engagement and into the creative work.

The way consumers interact with content has fundamentally changed. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the long-term shift to digitalization and inspired a boom of options. The immediacy and judgment-free context of e-commerce, online streaming and virtual communities have opened a new door for self-exploration. As a result, these online spaces are shifting from identity-based to interest-based, and so is algorithmic advertising.

Leo Burnett’s ambition is to deliver ’Populist Creativity’ for our clients, and what work can be populist if it doesn’t resonate with people from all backgrounds, races and walks of life?

This policy features prominently at the top of each casting brief that goes out the door and helps ensure our creative output for clients reflects all facets of our wonderfully diverse society along with positively promoting its richness and dispelling any negative stereotypes.

Tapping into – and being able to truly represent – the spectrum of fiercely individual experiences that exist within our society is at the very heart of Rapp’s approach to creating more inclusive marketing.

While there’s increasing awareness of gender stereotypes and how limiting they can be, I don’t expect them to go anywhere soon. Brands may get more attention by challenging stereotypes, but once the novelty wears off, the message itself may be more difficult to break through because consumers are trying to figure out the people in the ad.

Whenever we build a prototype powered by machine learning, we consider all the ways in which things could possibly go wrong. That’s how we found, for example, that women’s face masks were twice as likely to be misidentified as duct tape or gags/restraints by popular pre-trained computer vision models compared to men.

Defining a person’s role, desires or behaviours by their gender is lazy and reductive. Take the UK government’s recent ‘stay home’ ads portraying women doing domestic chores, which alienated millions of working women, but equally the men who take on these roles. Our clients know that these ads where gender stereotypes are deployed are ineffective because they do not reflect real life.

With advertising’s reach and power to influence society comes a responsibility to set the right tone – and that includes not propagating harmful stereotypes, of any kind. While advertisers are increasingly mindful of the issue – the number of influential brands in the Unstereotype Alliance is a testament to that – there often remains a discord between representation versus role.

The root of the problem is adversity to risk: brands worry obsessively about offending people.

By falling back on predictable stereotypes brands simply aren’t reflecting the three-dimensional characters people really are. Why, for example, would you reduce someone to ‘generic white dad’ when they come from the generation that invented rave, took drugs, brought hip-hop to the mainstream, grew up watching Tarantino and travelled the world before they were 25? These ‘real’ people are way more interesting than the stereotype.

Want to join the debate? Email me at to be included in future editions of this series.

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Unstereotype AllianceCampaign Against Living Miserably and Joe MediaImogen TazzymanMcCann ManchesterSusie Lyons
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