Gender diversity in Singapore’s advertising: are brands up to the mark?

Gender representation in Singapore’s advertising lags far behind reality. With a new study revealing the extent of the country's skewed view on gender equality, can brands shape up and make their marketing more equitable?

With 39% of its workforce women, Singapore has a better gender balance in its labour market than many countries around the world. 60% of working-age women are actively engaged in the labour market, a proportion that has been steadily increasing since 1970, when it sat at 28%. But that balance is not reflected in the country’s advertising market. Ads in Singapore are six times more likely to show women doing domestic chores than men, and men are 32% more likely to be featured in lead roles.

In a bid to review current portrayals of gender in Singaporean advertising and hold advertisiers accountable for poor representations of women in the media, campaign group Aware and marketing consultancy R3 studied 200 television ads by Singapore’s top 100 advertisers.

These ads were broadcast between 2018 and 2020, and were scored across four key attributes; body image portrayals; objectification; gender stereotypes in roles and characters; and female representation.

One of the best-performing advertisers was Unilever-owned Vaseline, whose spot ‘Visible scars, invisible strength: lady without fingerprints’, created by Viddsee, delivered the message that skincare products are not merely about beauty but also about care. The ad also depicts an older female protagonist, a rarity in beauty marketing.

“In our ad, Vaseline wanted to share the story of a woman who has achieved success outside the home. Our hero, 71-year-old Madam Lee Hwee Chin, inherited her job as a blade sharpener from her father and is shown overcoming the odds and expectations to succeed in her profession,” a Unilever spokesperson tells The Drum.

“We wanted to highlight Madam Lee’s strength and spirit, and we’re humbled to have been allowed to share her story with so many through this campaign.”

The company had launched a global commitment in 2016 to remove stereotypes from its ads. It has pledged to wield its position as one of the world’s largest advertisers in service of that goal – hoping to lead by example, as well as advocate for change among competitors and partners.

“In 2017, leading voices in marketing and advertising along with Unilever came together to launch the UN Women-led Unstereotype Alliance – an industry collective united behind the common goal of eliminating gender bias and harmful gender stereotypes from their advertising,” says the spokesperson.

“The alliance is focused on empowering women in all their diversity (race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education,) and addressing harmful masculinities to help create a gender equal world.”

The report recommends three ways for brands to work towards better gender representation. The first is for brands to encourage agency partners to increase their diversity quotient.

Secondly, they have to give women the opportunity to see themselves as customers. According to Nielsen, the median contribution to household incomes by women in Singapore sits at a median of $7,076; as such, they inform purchasing decisions as much as any other household member. The current median Singaporean household income is $9,293.

The measurement company reports that they also tend to be more concerned about having a reputation for making good decisions and typicallly undertake research before making major purchases.

To engage with this demographic emotionally, the report recommends brands consider how often this audience has the opportunity to see themselves reflected. This could include the depiction of women in roles that break stereotypes around traditional gender roles, as well as portrayals of different bodies.

Finally, brands have to consider the ambitions and aspirations of the next generation. By more accurately reflecting the reality of modern Singapore, advertisers can reach larger audiences and stand out among stick-in-the-mud competitors still relying on gender stereotypes in their comms.

Five years ago, a PwC survey (2015) revealed that just 31% of female Singaporean millennials starting their careers believed they could reach senior positions at their current employer. That study found that 91% of female millennials in a relationship are part of a dual-career couple; while 66% of respondents globally earn the same or more than their partner or spouse, the number is 69% in Singapore.

Singapore’s younger generations want – and expect – equal treatement from employers and consumer brands alike. In order to fortify engagement and gain business among younger female audiences, the country’s brands need to keep up.