30% of Australian advertising employees are having concerns of sexist content silenced

New research from ShEqual, an initiative led by Women’s Health Victoria, has found that the Australian advertising industry is silencing almost a third (30%) of people concerned by “potentially sexist content, such as dangerous female stereotypes”.

Speaking at a panel event in Melbourne last night hosted by comedian and TV personality Alex Lee, industry figures including UM Australia CEO, Anathea Ruys, Medibank senior executive, brand, marketing & CX, Fiona Le Brocq, head of creative, insights at Kantar Asia, and Australia, Irene Joshy, associate creative director at M&C Saatchi, Sarah Vincenzini, senior strategist at TBWA, Dhivia Pilai, and group account director at Icon Agency, Niall Hughes discussed the many stereotypes women continue to face in advertising representation.

L-R: Irene Joshy – Kantar; Anathea Ruys- UM Australia; Fiona Le Brocq – Medibank; Dianne Hill – Women’s Health Victoria; Dhivia Pilai – TBWA; Sarah Vincenzini – M&C Saatchi; Niall Hughes – Icon Agency

For the research, ShEqual surveyed 598 advertising professionals, finding that 30% of industry staffers hesitated to call out sexist or stereotypical content or portrayals in advertising content “due to fears of negative consequences”, with other key reasons being cited as “not feeling it was their place”, they “weren’t senior enough”, or they had a “lack of experience”.

At the event, hosted by Icon Agency, the panel discussed the seven ‘recurring stereotypes in depictions of women in advertising, those being: The Model Mother, The Passive Little Girl, The Observed Woman, The Sexualised Woman, The Pretty Face, and The Ticked Box. Additional women found to be broadly absent from ads include women with disabilities, women with larger bodies, queer women, older women, and women of colour – particularly First Nations women.

Speaking to Mumbrella at the event, Medibank’s Le Brocq spoke about depicting fair representation and avoiding stereotypes in the brand’s marketing output, and the challenges that go into producing creative work that is flexible in repurposing across delivery on multiple channels.

Le Brocq said over her six-year tenure at the private health insurer, the decision-making process has continued to become “much easier” as the brand increasingly portrays the diversity and accurate representation in its work, and has achieved success in doing so.

“As a CMO, thinking about how you get something through the business, you need the trust of the people who you want to endorse the work that you’re doing, and I think the best way to do that is for them to understand the problem you’re trying to address. Personally, in my role, it’s becoming much easier to make those decisions because we’ve proved with some of those decisions that it performs better when you do it.”

On a question about why some categories, using gambling as an example, continue to over-produce ‘blokey’ content, as opposed to ones more broad-churched categories such as insurance that Medibank sits in, Le Brocq said that brands have to attempt to break out of the stereotypical norms.

Medibank’s Le Brocq

“If I were them, I’d be asking why are we doing what everyone else is doing? You cannot be differentiated when you’re doing what everyone else is doing.”

“You have to find a way to be distinctive,” she said. “We still do that, even in our category. We want to break the category of norms. You then have to keep moving and evolving because when you do break the category norms, which I think we have done in several ways along the years, as soon as you’ve done that, you then have to move on and do the next thing and you look at a new way to do it.”

The panel discussed a wide range of tropes and complexities that can plague the production line of advertising, including the difficulties around tokenism, the disparity between creative decisions being made by women and purchases being made by women, and why sex no longer sells in advertising.

The panel was hosted by Alex Lee, comedian, and TV personality

ShEqual’s research also found that depictions of women that were respectful, realistic, and diverse in advertising were most important to respondents.

“Our data shows a disconnect between the intentions and actions of the industry in depicting women,” says Dianne Hill, CEO of Women’s Health Victoria. “It’s encouraging that the motivation is there, but the missing piece is an open dialogue on what representation looks like in 2022.”

ShEqual has also now launched a guide: Female Stereotypes in Advertising to help advertisers discuss the issues depicted, and use it as a resource for creatives, strategists, and brands to help erase the stereotypes from their outputs.

The guide, along with video and social content, partly created from last night’s event created by Icon Agency, looks to drive “much-needed conversations about the representation of women in creative content”.

“The average Australian sees 5,000** adverts a day, so it’s hard to overestimate the power they have to influence peoples’ views,” continued Hill. “It’s vital for the health and wellbeing of women that ads don’t reinforce harmful expectations and social norms. A good starting point is removing caricatures of women in advertising and replacing them with more realistic and diverse representations of women.”

Icon Agency’s MD and co-founder, Joanne Painter said: “Challenging inequality through advertising, storytelling, and communications starts with the people working in the industry. Gender and cultural diversity are deeply ingrained in Icon’s DNA; they are a source of pride. At Icon, we’re committed to ensuring the work we create offers realistic depictions of Australia’s complexity and diversity.”

As part of the work, ShEqual warns that the pervasiveness of shallow stereotypes in Australian advertising can have damaging real-world effects.

Hill added: “Sexist ads fuel a culture of gender inequity that perpetuates violence against women, with one in three* reporting having experienced physical or sexual violence.”

This new survey follows a report released by ShEqual in December, that found that sexist attitudes and behaviour towards women are still pervasive in the Australian advertising industry. 



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