It’s time to re-imagine the Aussie Bloke in ads

When persistent gender tropes are regularly deployed and viewed repeatedly, our industry’s cultural impact is great. And not in a good way. Jess Lilley, creative partner at The Open Arms, explores.

It might seem trivial in the grand scheme of things (what harm is a few busy mums or Aussie blokes on the small screen), but when research links sexist advertising to higher rates of violence against women, there is nothing lowkey about it.

The Open Arms proudly developed Commercial Breakdown in partnership with shEqual, understanding that when persistent gender tropes are regularly deployed and viewed repeatedly, our industry’s cultural impact is great. And not in a good way. 

We know how hard it can be to get an ad from brief to air, necessitating plenty of compromise within the bermuda triangle of decision making between agency, client and production. Visual shortcuts reign supreme, which may explain why gender tropes stubbornly persist.

But we can’t make excuses when research shows that, the more people are exposed to gender stereotypes in ads, the more likely they are to believe in narrow ideas about gender roles in the real world. According to a 2023 UN report: “Discriminatory gender norms perpetuated in media and advertising can normalise acts of violence against women and girls and portray unhealthy relationships.”

Still, it feels a little treacherous to challenge the output of our own industry. So it’s only fair I confess that, at times in my career, I too have contributed to some questionable gender portrayals. I have sat on set feeling a little ill as I watched a woman dancing around a toaster to sell whitegoods. I have written scripts featuring cute girls doing cute things in the name of ‘wellness’. And I have had my casting recommendations rejected by male ECDs and directors in favour of women who more clearly align with their ideals of ‘hotness’.

Which is why we decided to let someone else do the talking in this campaign. Considering advertising’s output is designed to appeal to a whole variety of audiences, who better to kickstart the conversation than regular people sitting in front of the tele watching ads? 

Okay, perhaps not entirely regular people. We brought together brilliant comedians, Alex Lee and Lewis Garnham, over a bottomless supply of tea and Iced Vovos to watch around 30 current ads and talk through some of the repeated gender tropes within them. These were whittled down from around a hundred ads we reviewed across a range of categories, all screened within the last 12 months. You can see the result here.

Why comedians? They are excellent at making acute social observations and holding up societal truths – sometimes uncomfortable ones – in a disarming way that can make us think a little deeper about the work we are creating. 

One of the interesting things they highlighted is how little room to move there is in the language used to advertise products to men, a place where the ‘Aussie Bloke’ reigns supreme. He can be shouty, sporty, tough, techy, larrikin or hard working. But rarely is he soft, quiet, caring, domestic — or seen in the company of women or kids.

While the overt sexual objectification of women has diminished on our small screens, it has been replaced with… absence. Categories like beer stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that genders socialise together. And when we do find women, they still tend to fulfil a nurturing, shopping, self-grooming, home-centred or support role. Rarely are they allowed to take centre stage and simply be funny like the blokes are.

There are of course many great ads being made and many exceptions to these stereotypes – more dads are taking dinner to the table, which is a good thing. But these tropes come up time and time again. And given Australians are exposed to thousands of ads a day, if a decent proportion of them continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes, they are doing harm. 

They also contradict research that suggests consumers crave authenticity over persuasion. Studies in the UK, US and locally all point to audiences feeling constricted by unrealistic gender expectations fed to them in ads, with men in particular suggesting their priorities are health, home and relationships, not external markers of success.

It’s entirely probable persistent stereotypes are symptomatic of a deeper problem in our industry. Another interesting consistency turned up in the production credits. In the ads we reviewed, men are still in the vast majority when it comes to filling important creative roles – both on the agency side and in the roles of director, DoP and editor. 

As an industry, we are brilliant at awarding ourselves glittering prizes for our perceived social impact. But we can’t seriously consider ourselves ahead of the cultural curve if we are not willing to shine a light on the inequalities we perpetuate, particularly in the context of Australia’s crisis of male violence against women.

It’s vital we hold ourselves accountable for our role in the broader social harms advertising can have. We must be willing to have these conversations within our agencies and with the brands we work with. We have to face our own biases and keep asking, who gets to make the decisions throughout the creative process? How are those decisions affecting the way we portray a diversity of people in our community? And how can we do better?

Jess Lilley is creative partner at The Open Arms, an ethical creative company based in Melbourne.


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