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'It's smarter for jurors to be responsible for their choices': 3%’s Kat Gordon on Cannes Lions gender bias ad ban

Following Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity last year, Badger & Winters chief creative officer and founder of the #WomenNotObjects initiative Madonna Badger created a petition calling on the organizers of Cannes to prohibit ads that objectify women. Ahead of this year's event, the organizers took her up on the suggestion: jurors will now be asked to avoid rewarding work that perpetuates gender bias and inequality.

Under the new criteria, jurors will be encouraged to use empathy when determining whether or not a piece of work objectifies women or other individuals. The move is a boon not only for the #WomenNotObjects movement, which Badger launched early last year with a short film that points out how often advertisers objectify women in ads, but also groups like the 3% Movement that advocate for female representation within the industry.

Last week, the 3% Movement formally congratulated Cannes on the added criteria, with founder Kat Gordon stating that the “language added to the Cannes rules – that asks jurors to do a gut check around the respectability of ad portrayals – belongs on every ad agency creative brief.”

The Drum spoke with Gordon to get her thoughts on why she thinks the new stipulations are important for the industry as a whole and what she thinks other organizations can do to champion gender equality.

As someone who has been fighting for gender equality within the industry for some time now, how important of a milestone is this?

I think things are interconnected and I think what's important about this is it’s twofold: I feel that the more women that make media, the better the media makes women in general. My crusade has been about the media makers and making more representation there, but for Cannes to suggest and to stipulate that work that is dismissive or objectifying of anyone is no longer eligible is important because it kind of honors that whole story.

Instead of instituting any formal rules, Cannes is simply asking jurors to do a gut check around how women are being portrayed in ads during the judging process. Do you think this goes far enough?

I actually like that they put the responsibility on the individual jurors. First of all, I’m sure it’s super hard to stipulate every potential presentation of work. I think that would be really difficult to police. I also think that since it’s a global creative award, there’s all sorts of nuances and different cultures. It’s much smarter to make individual jurors responsible for their choices, because ultimately we’re trying to do that inside ad agencies everywhere. We’ve been advocating for years to have every single creative brief in the world include language like that so that even before you create the concepts and try to sell the work, you actually have gone on record to say, ‘hey, it’s going to be just as off brand to do something objectifying as to use the wrong PMS color in the logo.’ I think it’s really good to have everyone in our industry have a sense of personal responsibility around it.

The Cannes Lions organizers implemented this guidance largely in response to a petition from Badger & Winters chief creative officer Madonna Badger. Are you surprised that someone outside the awards was the catalyst behind the change?

I don’t know that much about Cannes in terms of how it’s staffed and how much ownership of the brand individuals within it have, so I guess I can’t speak to whether or not I’m surprised. I think so many things in our industry get better when someone who is often an outsider just uses the power of suggestion by saying, ‘hey, i know we’ve always done it this way, how about doing it this way?’” Madonna doing that is another example of someone who is paying attention and is an advocate for the industry improving. I think it’s great that [Cannes] was on board with her suggestions.

Many have praised Cannes' organizers for implementing this guidance since it’s such an influential industry event. Are there any other events or organizations within the industry that you think should be taking similar steps to fight for gender equality?

I have thought for a while that the press - AgencySpy for sure and some others - some of their open comment areas have been a cesspool of misogyny. We had a session at our conference about this, about how a lot of women when they get promoted don’t even want it announced on AgencySpy because the trolls and the comments are just so punishing and cruel, down to a woman’s appearance or whether or not she just got [the job] because she was a woman. That’s a frontier where I can’t believe the media hasn’t had more either community management or code of conduct. It feels like it’s kind of open season on anyone and that’s something I would really like to change.

Last year, AlmapBBDO found itself in hot water after an aspirin ad it created won a Lion that was deemed sexist. Considering that the conversation around gender equality has been going on for some time now, why is it that ads like that are not only still being created but also winning awards?

Because they’re provocative. We watch mainstream media very closely at 3% and we do our Super Bowl tweetup, which obviously is the highest distribution work in America and the most expensive to air, and I am really excited by how much that work has improved in its depiction of everyone in recent years. It has really changed due to consumer and industry vocalness around it. I know Madonna has some very interesting research about that too, that even brand recall plummets when you have nudity or something really provocative because your brain is processing that and can’t remember who sponsored it. Everyone always says ‘sex sells,’ but actually sex doesn’t sell. I think those ads are really the exception, and so it’s great for Cannes to finally be like ‘let’s just be done with it.’

What else can Cannes Lions do to move the conversation around gender equality and diversity forward?

In terms of how Cannes can be better in future ways, I really think they need to think about how to get more young people there. I’ve told them this before in a survey they sent out: they really need to have different ticket prices for different groups. I feel like Cannes just creates this very exclusive [environment] where you can't even get in. They make a ton of money and I think it’s time for them to start to be a little bit more inclusive and care about things like that.

This year's Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity will take place between 17–24 June, and The Drum will be attending and reporting on the event as usual.