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Cannes Lions Media Diversity & Inclusion

'We thought advertising would've been so much better' than TV and film: On-screen gender lag still stands


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

June 21, 2017 | 6 min read

Despite the seeming perception that women are better represented on screen in advertising and media, the reality is that, according to a new study, that’s not the case.

Vintage Sexist print ads

Vintage Sexist print ads

Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and J. Walter Thompson (JWT), which analyzed 10 years of Cannes Lions Film, Film Craft winners and shortlists, using automation to analyze gender representation in advertising, revealed that men get around four times as much screen time as women and further, men speak more than seven times more than women.

The study, Unpacking Gender Bias in Advertising, presented today at the Cannes Lions, also noted, among other things, that there are twice as many male characters in ads than female characters. Additionally, 25% of ads feature men only, while 5% of ads feature women only — and 18% of ads feature male voices only, while 3% of ads feature female voices only.

“We thought advertising would've been so much better,” said Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media (GDI). “We were joking amongst ourselves and said, ‘Oh, I am sure women are 80% of the screen and speaking time.’ We thought it would be completely different and it wasn't. In some cases, it was worse than what we've been collecting in TV and film.”

Indeed, digging deeper, the automated research tool, called GD-IQ, funded by, developed to analyze audio and video media content through machine learning and audio-visual processing technologies from Google and the University of Southern California, showed that close to 42% of ads feature women only 20% of the time or less on screen. For speaking time, that number was almost 48% of the time. Over the last 11 years, the number hasn’t seen material change. In 2006, for example, screen time, using the same percentage, the numbers were relatively flat.

To Brent Choi, chief creative officer at JWT in New York and Canada, the issue may come down to consistency. There has been some substantial work that reflects women in an overwhelmingly positive light, including the highly-awarded Dove campaigns from Oglivy, this year’s Fearless Girl from McCann and Nike work from over the years, but Choi sees them as only getting action so far.

“[The] way we're framing this — there are tentpole moments that are supposed to lift the whole industry,” said Choi. “But the way women phrase it there's tentpoles but there's no tent. There's just poles. The rest of the industry is non-existent, featuring, celebrating and championing women, so it's a moment for all of us to realize [there is more to be done], with the data to support it.”

Further, the bad habits in advertising, ingrained over a number of years, exacerbate the situation.

“When we do an ad for women's empowerment, we're great at it,” noted Choi. “When we do a regular ad for a car or a detergent or whatever it is we do, it's back to the same stereotypes and gender roles that we use.”

Though creative leadership in the industry is improving (though not as quickly as many would like), with more and more women being placed in senior roles, it’s the brands that have a great chance to impart change. General Mills and HP are two high-profile brands, for example, that demand greater representation of women and people of color, prompting leadership to possibly think about “how [teams] are put together and how they think about the work and casting.”

Education, both internally at agencies and externally, at advertising-centric schools, also presents an opportunity to even the playing field.

“It’s not only what's taught in the schools but who's in the schools,” said Choi. “Our department and many departments have more men in it than women. It's not only what you teach but having the right gender and diversity and inclusion in the classes as well. More diverse creatives will lead them to more diverse thinking.”

In advertising, and in Hollywood, there are the best of intentions, and women at the more senior level are seeing some strides, but to Di Nonno, a 30-year veteran of the entertainment industry, that tide should rise the collective as well.

“Studio heads have been really responsive, she said. “They’ve taken it to heart. There's a lot of changes that are being made, but you need to aggregate these consistently so that it actually moves the needle statistically across the whole. We believe all the studios are being very progressive, not only in external content but also looking internally. There's a lot of well known female directors that are in demand right now that are working. Hopefully we'll see the behind the scenes also start to move because the percentage of female directors has never been over double digits.”

Brands and, by extension, advertising in general, have the agility to impact change in perception almost overnight. Though Hollywood has had a recent hot streak of strong female role models with the likes of The Hunger Games series and Wonder Woman, the longer production times are a consideration.

“Wonder Woman took two years,” said Choi. “We could turn around a commercial in a month.”

“Advertising can react in warp speed, far quicker than the entertainment industry,” added Di Nonno. “It's not only advertising impacting society, it's advertising influencing the entertainment industry, particularly as it relates to the television and digital platforms, they yield so much power.”

Despite the lagging numbers, there is a positive force at work, one that also drives the business and brands forward.

“There’s opportunity. It's all up side, it's all opportunity,” said Di Nonno. “There’s a social imperative and then there's the business imperative. Brands and agencies get rewarded when they have diverse and inclusive advertising. When that advertising is placed next to relevant and diverse and inclusive programming, the brands will sell more."

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