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Advertising Gender Equality Diversity & Inclusion

Advertising Week panel uncovers the truth about gender bias in advertising


By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

September 25, 2017 | 6 min read

Having the conversation on gender bias is the first step to overcoming it, and a panel discussion at Advertising Week Monday afternoon confronted the subject head on.

Gender diversity in advertising

The Truth About Gender Bias in Ads in 2017

‘The Truth About Gender Bias in Ads in 2017’ featured four women and one man talking about how there is still plenty of gender bias in advertising, which has been a constant for as long as it has been studied.

Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive officer of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, started the discussion with some statistics that had the panelists shaking their heads in disbelief. The stats were from a study that the institute – founded and named after actor Geena Davis – and J. Walter Thompson did following over a decade of research examining gender representation in advertising and released in June.

The numbers found that women are still highly under represented in advertising, and when they are included, they almost always fit into stereotyped roles in the kitchen or sexually objectified. The study took into account 12 years (2006-2017) of data from English speaking countries from Cannes winners and shortlists.

Di Nonno discussed how a tool called the GDIQ – Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient – studied facial and voice recognitions. That tool uses green boxes for female roles and blue boxes for male roles.

“It revealed a level unconscious bias we didn’t think was possible,” said Di Nonno.

Some of the facts were that male characters were represented two times more than female characters, and that men are on screen four times more than women in television advertising. Men also speak seven times more than women and men have three times more dialogue than women.

Di Nonno said that women in their 20s and men in their 30s were most represented in ads, which she found odd since women 50-plus make most of the purchasing decisions for families. Plus, while men are often shown outdoors and at sporting events, 48% of women are shown in the kitchen. While men are 89% more likely to be shown as smart, only one in five women are shown as having jobs.

“Women are getting younger and dumber,” she stated.

Di Nonno said that the institute has a motto – “If she can see it, she can be it.” For instance, she said, that means that if more girls saw as scientists, they would be more likely to become one. Two other startling fact was that 58% of women would be inspired to be more ambitious if they saw more women in power, and 12% would be likely to leave an abusive relationship if they saw a woman doing so in ads or in movies.

“Media truly has the power to change the world. And it makes money,” she concluded before handing the presentation over to the panel, which was led by Lynn Power chief executive officer at J. Walter Thompson New York.

The first question she asked was how the panel felt about the statistics.

“It is shocking, the amount of unconscious bias that exists is amazing…how little progress we’ve made,” said Jeffrey Rothman vice president, marketing strategy and innovation for yogurt maker Danone.

Karen Adam a beauty and fashion industry consultant wondered who the creators were of those ads, and said the makers of ads should “represent broader experiences.” Adam advocates listening to the younger people on her team to incite change.

“Give voice to people on your team, especially the younger ones. Gives them courage to bring those fresh ideas,” she said.

Getting people involved was a theme all around, echoed by all the panelists. Rothman said to get men more involved, they have to recognize a man’s role in the problem and be aware rather than have unconscious biases linger.

“Unless we take conscious action, the unconscious will rule. We have to take actions to overcome unconscious bias,” he said.

Debra Bass, president, global marketing services for Johnson & Johnson, said that men have to “provide a backbone of support. Men have to be the sponsors.”

Since many of the panelists worked for large companies, they all said that larger organizations need to take conscious efforts to combat bias, which is especially important since many do not trust those in the government to enact change.

“For us to make a change, it starts at home. We have to improve environment and social conditions where we compete,” said Rothman.

Said Bass: “People don’t trust government, they look to big companies. It’s our responsibility to change culture.

Adam said that the beauty industry is one of the most guilty parties. “It’s about scaling authentic conversations,” she said, adding that many look to media outlets like Refinery29 for tips rather than the glossy magazines, to definitions of beauty are very different. “By empowering consumers and audiences, we can change landscapes.”

All the panelists stated that having measurement in place to see what ads are performing better is key, but also that the makers of ads need to represent a better cross-section of the general public so that more women get represented in real and authentic ways. The easiest way to do that?

“Put it in the script,” concluded Di Nonno.

Advertising Gender Equality Diversity & Inclusion

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