Opinion

It’s not an insight; it’s a dick joke

Cathie McGinn argues that the reason to end gender discrimination in the industry is because it’s damaging to creativity and leads to less effective work.

Sexism creates a lack of diversity at senior levels.
A lack of diversity at senior levels in adland stymies creativity.
In short, sexism leads to shit ads. Q.E.D.

Is this industry more sexist than others? Well, I hear a lot of stories from women:

  • an agency’s head of delivery being made redundant while on maternity leave;
  • a network agency boss sending his PA to find the group’s most attractive woman to accompany him to a event;
  • an HR director passing on complaints of workplace sexual harassment to an agency boss who asked her if the complaint was because she was upset that no one had complimented her figure;
  • the creative director who claimed having children had made her more of an asset to the agency because she better understood mothers;
  • many tales of the tacit assumption that the woman will fetch drinks in the boardroom no matter what her level of seniority.

And at every event I’ve ever attended where a senior successful woman speaks about her career, she will be asked how she has managed her success along with having a family, or whether her success has been at the cost of having children. I have, to this day, never heard that question asked of a man.

And these stories, of course, are shared off the record, so discrimination has no consequences and can continue unchecked in the silence.

The Communications Council has created a Gender Diversity Group to address the scarcity of female senior creatives and female agency bosses in network agency roles. There are several groups providing mentorship and peer support for women (among them She Says, of which I’m a member). These are groups set up to address a need, a real issue highlighted by the recent reports of a 40% pay discrepancy between men and women in the marketing and media industry.

Anti sexploitation campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist held a session at Mumbrella 360 recently, which despite a post having been one of the most commented on pieces we’ve ever run, was one of the most poorly attended of the otherwise mostly packed event. A discussion on diversity in the industry was also among the low turnout sessions.

There’s a reluctance and a fear of addressing the issue and it’s holding us back.  And it’s my belief that this, amongst other things, is what leaves this industry creating less creative and less effective ads. Here are a few recent examples.

Droga 5’s Domestos ad featured Camilla, fiancée of bodybuilding champion Phill. “I cook twenty kilos of chicken a week….” she muses, as we see her stacking a supermarket trolley and laboriously chopping up a mountain of vegetables, clearly intended to slake her partner’s gluttony. As Phill goes into the bathroom, we’re left with a shot of Camilla holding a bottle of the bleach brand and the clear implication that Phill’s mammoth appetite has calamitous consequences for the toilet; twenty kilos transmogrified into pebbledashed porcelain which Camilla will have the unenviable task of cleaning up.

“Phill is strong. Lucky, [Domestos] is even stronger”. Why, I find myself asking, is Phill incapable of cleaning up his own mess? While I applaud the filmmaking and the interesting direction of the content, I’m left with an unpleasant whiff in my nostrils; not, thankfully, caused by Phill himself, but the reek of lazy gender stereotyping. That same ad running shot for shot, but ending with Phill trundling sheepishly into the bathroom brandishing the Domestos himself would have genuinely been “category redefining,” whereas as it stands it’s a depiction of a woman carrying out a series of domestic chores and is simply category reaffirming.

Another recent lacklustre default sexist ad is the Lynx Body Buffercommercial. I found the original, now two years old, genuinely hilarious, but the repurposed version featured the less deft comedic touch of Aussie Sophie Monk.

Accompanied by a print activation featuring Monk posing in her knickers, the campaign took the archness and smut, well handled by Jamie Pressly in the original, and turned it into crude tits-out-for-the-lads single entendre. This campaign is not built on an insight: it’s a dick joke.

And so what? Well, given that Alpha, Ralph and FHM have all closed their doors, are we so sure that the consumer really engages with this kind of content? Do we care that the picture we create for young women is that they are not the heroes of their own lives but sex objects and support crew?

NRL’s new ad claims to be dedicated to the unsung heroes. According to the agency, the TVC was “designed to break down female stereotypes.” It’s chosen to do this by reinforcing the notion that the role women play in the sport is to fetch, carry, mop, scrub, to be “the queens of the canteens” – to provide support; anything but play the game themselves.

I’m not sure quite how restating these stereotypes will make them less pervasive. What’s particularly interesting about this ad is that the creative team is predominantly female, demonstrating that sexism can be perpetuated by women as much as men.


The solution is not positive discrimination, which is just sexism under another name: it’s about embracing diversity.

It means boards and senior execs pausing for a moment before hiring a replica of themselves and considering whether the breadth of creative ideas that might result from a creative team being made up of a diverse group of people with life experience broader than that merely conferred by owning a penis might actually help to create extraordinary work. It was good to see Clemenger BBDO Brisbane move in that direction today.

“When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists” – Ben Barres, transgender biologist, Stanford University

  • Cathie McGinn
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