Advertising still has a gender stereotyping problem

While market segmentation undoubtedly has its place, there’s a big difference between knowing your audience and telling your audience who they should be, argues Victoria McKeown, general manager of brand at Atomic 212°.

There’s nothing wrong with appealing to your target audience. While there are absolutely merits to men having a better idea about feminine hygiene products, you’ve got to fish where the fish are, and creating a campaign to sell tampons by appealing to men is unlikely to be successful (although I’m more than happy to be proven wrong!).

But there’s a big difference between knowing your audience and telling your audience who they should be.

Selling a ute or hardware? You need a real blokey bloke as your star – preferably one dressed up as a tradie – and get the voiceover guy who sounds like Russell Crowe after about six packs of cigarettes. Because only manly men drive utes and hammer nails into wood.

Conversely, if you’re looking to offload cleaning products, create a magical, fantasy world of princesses and unicorns. Because cleaning the house is a job for women, and women are taught from an early age that Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty are the perfect role models.

We know them all – men can’t cook or handle any basic domestic duties without looking like a bit of an idiot, while women are either the homekeeping goddesses or just a bit of eye candy.

Where’s the nuance? Where’s the actual reflection of the world we live in?

Audiences in the UK are likely to find out as of next year, after releasing a report last month that found “a tougher line is needed on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which can potentially cause harm, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes”.

“Portrayals which reinforce outdated and stereotypical views on gender roles in society can play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people,” said Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

Outdated and stereotypical

There’s an old cliche which states, “cliches become cliches because they’re true”.

While a little less catchy, I’d suggest perhaps a more accurate saying would be “cliches become cliches because they’re true – until they’re not anymore”.

Long-held truths are found out to be completely false all the time. Contrary to what most of the world’s population have thought at one point in time, the world is not flat, lightning has been known to strike twice, and human beings have far more than just five senses.

So what’s the sense in perpetuating truths that may have held water in the mid-to-late 20th century, considering the massive shift our world has undergone since the advent of the internet and, more recently, the smartphone?

Because while there have always been people who went against what was considered ‘the norm’, the ability to connect with people all over the world has proven emphatically – both individually and at a far more macro level – that the idea a few set characteristics can define a man or woman is just plain wrong.

In fact, we’re learning that even thinking you can just break the world’s population down into man or woman is not correct either.

So why perpetuate a lie?

Want to achieve cut-through? Be different

Advertising is designed to be persuasive, so it’s no surprise that advertisers use simple messages – like gender codes, which have been ingrained in most people – to sell things.

And there’s nothing wrong with simplifying things – indeed, with people turning to their phone the second something ceases to engage them, simple is good.

But simple doesn’t have to mean spouting the same, tired, old crap over and over.

Take Microsoft’s recent campaign encouraging girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

There’s nothing particularly different or challenging about that video from a technical point of view, apart from the message it conveys. And it conveyed that message exceptionally well – the video was watched over 12 million times and the campaign received hundreds of millions of impressions.

So why was it so effective? Because it not only held a mirror up to society, it also pointed a way forward. Women are poorly represented in STEM, so let’s change that.

Now, granted, Microsoft’s campaign was based around causing social change – and a computer company encouraging 50% of the population to be more involved in STEM is just good business – but you don’t need a campaign aimed at driving change to make a difference.

And different is good. Because if you’re just showing more of the same, who’s going to notice you?

The world has changed and continues to do so at a rapid rate, yet so many campaigns continue to tell a gender fairytale that – while perhaps never entirely accurate – ceased to ring true years ago.

It can be scary to break new ground and try something a bit different, but most people have moved with the times and are simply waiting for the advertising industry to catch up.

This could be the easiest win our industry gets in a long time, as most campaigns don’t even need to break new ground – just go to where the audience already are!

Victoria McKeown is general manager of brand at Atomic 212°.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.