Well, that’s embarrassing. It turns out that crappy gender stereotypes in advertising is such an intractable problem that we needed the grown ups to come along to make sure the industry plays nice. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has just published a study
that demonstrates the harm that stereotypes in ads can do – and as a result they’re going create stricter guidelines. It’s the same week that the BBC revealed the first ever female Doctor Who – to a mixture of cheers and gurning apoplexy – so the timing couldn’t be better. But what does it all really mean?
Well the first thing to be said is that the research and proposed guidelines are moving in a similar direction to that of the industry at a senior level. We’ve seen Unilever’s massive ‘Un-stereotype’ launch, a top-down project designed to prod agencies into line last year, which has evolved into the Unstereotype Alliance – which now encompasses Unilever, P&G, WPP, Diageo, Google and Facebook and others. In fairness, the report acknowledges Unstereotype Alliance and other projects aimed at improving gender equality at a corporate level. But, of course, for every right-on initiative there’s a bumbling dad who can barely dress himself, let alone his kids. Or – shudder – a Protein World ad. Noble, Glass Lion-winning work is all well and good, but it’s the bulk churn of unspectacular work littering our streets and screens that really has the potential to grind on the psyche. And if that’s lazy work full of lazy, unthinking stereotypes, then that constant drip-drip-drip is going to have an impact.
The report tackles the obvious problems – airbrushed perfection, unequal domestic divisions of labour, sex and objectification. But there’s some interesting nuance in there too.
If you look at the research document
(different from the overall report) is worth a read if you’re unconvinced. The research team spoke to 157 individuals from around the UK and of various ages, giving them ads to watch and various tasks to complete. I was struck by the ‘tween’ respondees – kids convinced of their maturity might not be as savvy about and resistant to gender stereotypes as we might complacently think.
I thought it was interesting that the women interviewed were quick to pick up stereotypical or over-sexualised depictions. Female ethnic-minority participants were also quick to pick up and dissect stereotypes, note the lack of diversity and to highlight the intersection of ethnic stereotypes and gender.
However, according to the authors, many of the men researched “went on more of a ‘journey’”. Less euphemistically, they took longer to reach the same conclusions as the women, perhaps driven by some inner conflict. “There was indication across research sessions that for some men there was a tension regarding the attractive appeal of women in advertising and acknowledging that this type of portrayal could be problematic,” is how the researchers put it. The point being, if, like an enraged Whovian who can’t conceive of a shapeshifting, two-hearted alien taking female form, you find yourself really resisting the ASA report with a howl of ‘it’s PC gone mad!”… it might be worth looking inwards as to why you’re experiencing such distress.
The report encompasses several areas, from sexual objectification to rigid gender roles to the harm caused by unreal depictions of ‘perfection’, but one of the strongest suggestions to emerge from the participants was that advertisers should avoid ridiculing those who don’t conform to gender norms or stereotypical levels of attractiveness. The ads shared in the research included one with a guy who is mocked for liking ‘girly’ scented candles. Another suggested that a man could only find an overweight woman attractive if he’d been drinking too much. It’s unsurprising that they made people uncomfortable. One, they’re just mean. And two, if you happen to like scented candles or feel unhappy with your own body (or know anyone who does), you’re going to feel pretty shitty.
And, it turns out, that ridicule tends to make people feel negatively towards your brand. So, if the empathy argument doesn’t work for you, maybe the effectiveness one will?
Over all, the content of the report seems to be common sense – though I have learned the hard way not to overestimate that particular quality in other people. It’s not saying don’t show women or men doing things that might be considered stereotypical – a woman cleaning, for example – just think about the context of the ad. Don’t be an arsehole to people. Don’t try to make them feel bad about themselves. Remember that people are complicated and resent being smooshed into a rigid, stereotyped box.
All pretty simple really.
And now that I’ve cleared that one up, let’s move onto female Timelords. Y’all sitting comfortably?