Guidelines aren’t the answer to ad land’s stereotyping woes, but your audience might be

Barilla creates a Spaghetti Connection

There is a lot of concern voiced these days around gender stereotyping in advertising, with the consensus being that ads should not promote gender stereotypes. New blanket rules are springing up to enforce this agenda, but much of this may be unnecessary – there are already natural, proven, more open ways for brands to get closer to customers and ensure diverse, non-stereotypical creative work.

Some of the current, well-intentioned initiatives could even prove counter-productive.

The UK campaign #SummerSoWhite, for instance, is a decent effort to inject more diversity (in this case regarding ethnicity), but again via a centralised, artificial concept of what diversity should be, realised through the Communications Diversity Taskforce – a collaboration between media and creative industries.

On gender stereotyping, an alliance between UN Women and Unilever, backed by Facebook, WPP, Microsoft, Google, Mars and other leading brands has suggested a global code of conduct. This could easily become a blueprint for a new stereotyping of its own.

How would a global standard be applied? A stereotype in Seattle may be revolutionary in Srirangapatna. (Exactly! Look it up. I suspect the groups looking to impose diversity know as little as you or I about Srirangapatna and what gender stereotypes apply or ‘should’ apply there.)

We should be careful, too, that worthy words do not obscure serious questions. Even the aim to eliminate gender stereotypes is debatable. Some “stereotypes” may be positive. Are we to banish the loving mother from advertising? The carefree child?

For genuine diversity, perhaps the best way to decide what is stereotypical or not would be to leave it to the public themselves, in all their glorious diversity.

Advertisers already see practical benefit from this approach. As Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, said: “Consumers are telling us they want fresh, progressive depictions of men and women, and Unilever’s own research shows us that progressive adverts are 25% more effective than those featuring more traditional portrayals of gender. They also deliver better branded impact.”

In other words, smart marketers should commission content that embodies true, diverse creativity and allow open, democratic customer choice. The most relevant, engaging content will work best. Businesses which traffic in obsolete, alienating stereotypes will be penalised and lose customers. Reducing stereotypes gives business competitive advantage. Simple.

But then a challenge remains: given the prodominantly male, hierarchical content production processes, how do you create this new, diverse, non-stereotypical content?

Here again a wider, more democratised strategy can help. Brands can spread the source of their creativity, looking beyond legacy processes to harness the global creative crowd and the cameras on their smartphones.

By definition this is a diverse collection of talented creators across genders, races, age groups, locations and social backgrounds. You may even get a film from Srirangapatna. And the crowd’s authentic creativity embodies life’s varied attitudes and vibrant reality, not hackneyed stereotypes.

The crowd also scores for sheer range and scale of diversity. In contrast to the expensive traditional creative process, which narrows down creativity to one TV spot, the crowd produces multiple films – dozens, sometimes hundreds – to the same brief. This yields diverse personal stories, views and experiences.

At Userfarm, we’ve used the crowd to make a swimwear ad without a rippling male six-pack in sight and a spot for a pasta company featuring more than just sexy young Italians.

No ASA rules were required to come up with these films. No committee had to agonise over whether they met diversity criteria. The global creative crowd reflects reality, and reality, as we know, is not stereotypical.

With the crowd, there is already a cornucopia of diverse creativity within brands’ reach. Marketers just need to reach out and grab it.

Jeffrey Lee is chief marketing officer at Userfarm

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