The detrimental impact of gender-based advertising

Yvonne Januschka, vice president at Shutterstock APAC, examines the role and responsibility of gender in advertising.

Whilst we’ve made significant progress in Australia, gender-based advertising still exists (despite being met with intense public backlash). Unlike countries such as Britain, Norway and France, Australian legislation does not regulate sexist advertising.

Gender-based advertising – no matter how subtle – can have a detrimental impact on both the brand attached, and wider society.

As the creatives playing a role in this type of storytelling, we must do better to ensure outdated depictions of gender roles are a thing of the past.

Where we stand in Australia 

The prevalence of gender-based stereotyping in Australia has received international critique. As Yumi Stynes’ ‘Is Australia Sexist’ investigation revealed back in 2018, our nation has a long way to go to reconcile the gender divide.

Whilst we’ve witnessed some progressive work in the advertising and marketing space – such as ANZ’s ‘Equal Future’ campaign – an undercurrent of subtle gender stereotyping still remains. In 2019, the University Of Sydney Business School completed an analysis of advertisements in Australian Women’s Weekly between 1950 and 2010. The findings revealed that, over 60 years, advertisements still strongly depicted women in a caregiving role; prioritising family responsibilities over career or personal growth.

Such portrayal has been personally observed by Australians, with 66 percent believing Australian advertising still conforms to gender stereotypes. More concerning, however, is that over half of those surveyed think advertising reinforces harmful norms.

Smashing stereotypes for purpose and profit

Gender stereotypes in advertising may seem like an easy way to generate some cheap thrills – currently, the industry code accepts the use of gender stereotypes to ‘simplify communications. However the lax use of such stereotypes only propagates damaging ideals, and usually an insulted audience.

This year, KFC was slammed worldwide for a ‘sexist’ 15 second advertisement, showing young boys gawking at a woman. The ad was critiqued by the Collection Shout for not only being a ‘regression to tired and archaic stereotypes, but also reinforcing the impact of such ads in contributing to ‘a lesser view of women, resulting in their mistreatment’.

If the pull of a positive, equal society isn’t enough of an incentive for marketers, brand positioning surely must be.

The reputational and financial damage caused by careless advertising can’t be ignored. Peloton, an exercise bike company, lost the equivalent of $2.171 billion in value after a Christmas advert titled ‘The gift that gives back’, centered on a woman’s quest to lose weight. In an attempt to challenge toxic masculinity, Gillette’s ‘A Best A Man Can Be’ advertisement categorised men into three tropes: The good male, the bad male and the passive ‘onlooker’. Whilst the sentiment was progressive, the ad received intense public backlash (becoming one of the most disliked videos on YouTube). Gillette later also lost the equivalent of $7.2 billion loss.

Relying on gender tropes, or suggesting there’s a certain way to perform one’s gender, risks alienating large groups of potential customers, and a damaged brand image.

Future of gender stereotypes in advertising 

No company will survive without understanding its demographic segmentation. Every brand should (hopefully) have a comprehensive knowledge of their target market’s age, gender, socioeconomic status.

Refraining from identifying the specific characteristics of their market (such as gender) can be daunting. The fear of being too blase with targeted messaging can be thought to impact the ability of truly resonating with an audience.

Where the problem lies, however, is failing to acknowledge nuance and diversity in targeting these demographics. Every move counts when tapping into the zeitgeist. At the forefront, social listening and an ear-on-the-ground approach will help inform the basic ins and outs of gender inclusive terminology and representation.

As creatives, we must rethink the role of segmentation in an increasingly inclusive market. Understanding that every member of a ‘target audience’ has a separate goal, desire and need, will help you succeed. Break through the bias and channel efforts on personality, over gender.

While some products will naturally lean to a more feminine or masculine slant (it’ll be impossible to fully eradicate binary colours such as pink and blue from production), your marketing and advertising activity can pave the way for a radical reshaping.

Aesthetical characteristics of masculinity and femininity aren’t often innate, but are instead the construct of society. Take inspiration from brands that shook off the gender roles such as Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign and Maybelline’s Big Shot mascara campaign with Manny Gutierrez.

Gender is out, neutrality is in

Nailing your marketing in the era of gender fluidity is crucial. Social politics has bled more into the advertising and marketing space than ever before.

The dialogue surrounding the breakdown of gender roles has gained traction, and has captured the next generation of consumers. Brands that fail to keep up, will fall behind.

Yvonne Januschka is the vice president at Shutterstock APAC.


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