It’s time to rethink lazy male stereotypes in advertising

As the female representation movement makes massive strides forward, it's easy to forget that men too are victims of advertising's tendency to stereotype, explains Getty Images' Rebecca Swift.

The stoic battler. The beer swilling punter. The sweating sportsman. The dumb dad. We know them well. They’re the stereotypes of men we’ve come to resent and openly mock. So, I’m glad to say it looks like we’re on the cusp of a historic shift in how men are represented.

Demographics and cultural changes mean these traditional, one-dimensional notions of masculinity are rapidly losing relevance with little to take their place. With millennials rejecting gender stereotypes, a new wave of feminism dominating our social conversation and LGBTQ issues slowly making headway – expectations of traditional visual storytelling are being challenged.

At Getty Images we first started noticing a significant increase in demand of images for a certain type of man in 2017. It became clear that particular keyword terms were surging in popularity. They all pointed to one thing – the desire to see a more multidimensional, sensitive, vulnerable and caring man.

Credit: Layland Masuda, Getty Images

One of the noticeable trends in Australia was in searches for ‘man + depression’, up almost 50 percent YOY. Internationally ‘man meditating’ took off with a 126 percent rise while ‘crying man’ shot up by 75 percent.

This trend was an eye-opener for me. Undoing stereotypes around representation of women has been one of our major focuses at Getty Images in recent years.

During two decades in this field, male representation was never in question. Now it feels like the most obvious thing in the world to challenge – and a reminder of why the visual communications work we do is so important.

We’ve already started to notice more Aussie ad campaigns showing a different side of the Aussie man. SOLO’s cheeky spin on its traditional ‘man-doing-intensely-manly-thing’ spots is a great example. They show a softer side – a dad making a robot costume for his daughter, a dog-lover building a cute kennel for his beloved pet.

It’s about time. Australia is a cosmopolitan country and Australian men are far more interesting than one-dimensional representations have made them out to be.

Challenging traditional notions

A new generation of consumers are more conscious and intolerant of inauthentic representation. They’re creating and consuming hundreds of images every day. There’s increasing demand for brands to dump the lazy thinking and make sure images of men and women align more closely with reality. If you’re in the business of communications, you need to work a hell of a lot harder to connect and hold their attention.

Brands that stick their heads above the parapet on this trend are being rewarded with attention because they’re doing something that feels different and represents the diversity of their audience.

It’s exciting to see two of the world’s biggest men’s toiletry brands, Gillette and Lynx, lighting the way with competing campaigns that are challenging traditional notions of masculinity.

Lynx’s ‘Men in Progress’ campaign challenges labels that prevent men being themselves and Gillette’s ‘Handle with Care’ taps heavily into emotion. Lynx is part of Unilever, which has gone a step further by joining the Unstereotype Alliance, a UN-led initiative to ban gender stereotyping in advertising.

Consumers are openly criticising brands that continue to rely on clumsy stereotypes. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority announced late last year that it would ban harmful gender stereotypes because they damage individuals, the economy and society.

Realigning how men are viewed isn’t going to happen overnight. In 2007 the most popular image of a woman in the iStock library was a half-naked woman in bed. By 2017, it was a woman hiking a rocky trail. History shows us a new social trend bursts onto the scene then people go back to their daily lives. But when they do, they often start to act and speak slightly differently.

Will Australia be next to ban gender stereotyping? On Thursday, the AANA announced it was set to update its guidelines – but do they go far enough?

Given the evident crisis in masculinity in a social and visual culture that is changing rapidly, creatives in advertising have an opportunity to move on from the dull, destructive male stereotypes of the past. There are plenty of reasons beyond regulation to get out in front of this issue. Stepping up can be a big win for brands.

Yet not seeing this representational reckoning coming reminds me just how entrenched stereotypes have been. As marketers, media outlets, brands and photo agencies, we all need to play our part to make sure we don’t lose the opportunity that this cultural moment represents. It’s time to make people comfortable being themselves.

Rebecca Swift is global director of creative insights at Getty Images. 

The Mumbrella team addressed the AANA update in this week’s Mumbrellacast, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.


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.