From the worldwide Women’s March in January, to the media furore following the revelations around the gender pay-gap in organisations like the BBC, to the #MeToo movement where women shared their stories of sexual assault and harassment in response to the scandals rocking the entertainment, political and fashion worlds – women refused to remain silent this year when their rights or place in society were under threat.
The role of women in society remains one of the most important and contentious issues of our time. But the advertising industry, usually so keen to capture the cultural zeitgeist, seems to be on the wrong page. Seventy per cent of Britons think that adverts only show stereotypes and only 11% feel they reflect women accurately. Some 43% of us think that advertising is mostly or entirely made by men (vs only 3% of us who believe it is mostly made by women).
But it isn’t just women that advertising is failing to portray realistically, only 16% think ads reflect life in Britain today. Just one in five of us (19%) believe that advertising shows people that they can relate to personally.
But does it matter how men and women are portrayed in advertising?
Well, yes. Whether we like it or not, advertising is the wallpaper of our lives; UK advertising expenditure reached a staggering £21.4 billion in 2016.20 The messaging matters – it subtly helps build our mental picture of what ‘normal’ or ‘right’ is. How women (and men) are portrayed in advertising also impacts the bottom line. Four in ten people say they feel more negative towards brands that portray women predominantly as responsible for domestic chores (41%) or as objects of desire (46%). This swings both ways – 46% of Britons say they would also view a brand more negatively if their ads portray men as lazy. As a result, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has announced its intention to get tougher on gender stereotypes in advertising,21 while Unilever reiterated its pledge to eradicate gender stereotypes from their ads with the launch of the Unstereotype Alliance.22
The ability of advertising to portray, accurately, the way in which people really live is only going to become more important in the future. Younger Britons are more likely to say that it is important that advertising represents their culture and values – 57% of 16 to 24 year olds and 54% of 25 to 34 year olds, compared to just 41% of 55 to 75 year olds. But it isn’t just younger generations that advertisers need to be mindful of – half of those aged over 45 believe that advertising is bad at showing people they can personally relate to (only 13% of this age group think advertisers are good at this, half the figure of the younger age groups). If advertisers are not careful they risk alienating this group, who also wield plenty of purchasing power.
What can advertisers do to address this issue? According to Caroline Heldman of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “We have to write female characters with more screen time, more speaking time, more prominence in the storyline, with more personal agency, and without objectifying them”.23
It is clear that advertisers need to move beyond the lazy stereotypes of women, and work hard to portray women (and men) as fully-rounded, complex and diverse human beings, with a wide array of roles, desires and motivations. There is a need to create ads that resonate with people, by showing life as it is now – such as McCain’s ‘We Are Family’ ad, which celebrated the kaleidoscope of British families, or the Bodyform ad which features red period blood rather than a mysterious blue liquid. The public are most positive about brands that portray women predominantly as intellectual, professional or humorous (37%, 33% and 31%, respectively).
Advertising is part of our cultural (and physical) landscape: it is not going anywhere any time soon. But it needs to be reinvigorated, to reflect more accurately life as it is now. One way it can do this is by discarding its last stereotypes and assumptions of how men and women behave, and instead observing culture, listening more closely to what is going on around them, to what men, women, families and individuals really are, and present gender as it is for a more equal, more diverse, age.