Killing unconscious bias is the only way to solve advertising’s gender problem

Ahead of International Woman's Day on Thursday, Kantar TNS' Anne Rayner considers how drawing attention to unconscious bias is the only answer to finally solving the problem of gender in advertising.

Unconscious bias is – by its very nature – not normally visible when we look around us. When we ask people if they see gender bias, very few do, and even less can think of examples where they’ve experienced it. However, when pointed out through stories or studies, the ‘unconscious’ part is removed, and we can unpick how people feel about the issue.

Some see the bias and want to take action and ensure they don’t behave in this way, others see it but are ambivalent about whether they’d change their behaviour (‘political correctness’ or the loudest voice guiding behaviour but not a real commitment to change); and many deny its existence, finding excuses for the evidence in front of them.

76 percent of women and 71 percent of men believe advertising is not reflective of their gender, and the more that people are exposed to examples or evidence, the more pronounced their reaction becomes.

In one study, we let people read three short stories about mild gender bias, which led to some change in perceptions; and in another study we gave people videos to watch and reports to read that made the gender bias much more real and direct. Here we observed more polarisation of people to advocates for change or deniers of need for change.

Bias against women appears to be more normalised than bias against men

Although unconscious bias exists in against both genders, there is a greater job to be done to uncover and address unconscious bias against women. One ad with a stay-at-home mother doesn’t by itself add up to systemic gender bias in advertising; however, a whole ad break with few female characters not stereotyped or objectified does. 

And this is the challenge of identifying and stamping out gender bias. It’s the accumulation of lots of little individual decisions that minimise the role of women across many scenarios. Or, for that matter, lots of ads which portray men as either stupid or macho. 

Brands need to know where they sit on the issue of gender equality

If they don’t, problems can arise when they communicate and engage with consumers in a way that doesn’t align with peoples’ core values regarding gender and the impact can be dissatisfaction and reduced usage. If the disconnect becomes too strong, consumers defect to a different brand, one that better aligns with their gender values. Not surprisingly, such disconnects can also result in reduced market share for offending brands.

While the problematic touchpoints will be different for every brand, a solution is ‘designing to the edges’ – a concept from design thinking where inspiration is derived from the needs of each gender to make things better for everyone. It’s about leveraging an insight from one group that informs more broadly, leading to more expansive improvements. It’s a way of pushing design that is inclusive, not exclusive, and means gender improvements avoid the trap of ‘a zero-sum game’.

Advocating for one gender does not have to mean alienating the other

It seems as if brands are trying to become people, and people are trying to become brands. But, if brands are going to try to become more humane and befriended, followed and beloved in the process, marketers must accept that brands will be judged—like people—for the values they espouse and their behaviours. The gender issue only heating up. With it will come increased consumer awareness and dissatisfaction.

Eventually the issue will become unavoidable. It is then that brands will be obligated, like a friend, to stand up for what they believe in. In friendship, loyalty goes both ways and if values are not upheld, it does not go unnoticed. What’s more, in today’s world with its pervasive economic, political and cultural instability, brands have an even greater opportunity to shine as institutions that reflect positive values and behaviours.

Embracing gender equity in brand strategy is the way forward in more ways than one

Just last week, Johnnie Walker welcomed Jane Walker to the family in an attempt to draw more women and acknowledge a broader push toward gender equality, while on the largest spending day of the year—the Superbowl Championship—the 3% movement continued their five-year critique of the depiction of women in ads running during the game.

This tweetup on the event that attracts more than 100 million viewers globally—almost half women—uses the hashtag #notbuyingit for viewers to react based on whether there were female characters, if they were the main character and if it defied stereotypes.

The US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is pressing for a 20 percent increase by 2022 in the accurate portrayal of all girls and women in media.

They’re monitoring advertising via consumer insights on the seeher.com website using the data-tracking Gender Equality Measure (GEM).

We’re working with this measure here in Australia too and with ANA already finding that ads perform better in GEM positive content, proving that gender equality is good for business too.

Brands spend considerable time, money and focus on authenticity, social responsibility and building connections with consumers, so embracing the gender issue only makes sense. We’ve certainly got the numbers to show for it.

Anne Rayner is global head of communications research at Kantar TNS.


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