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How do you solve a problem like... gender stereotypes in advertising?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

This week, we’re looking at gender stereotypes in advertising. While we’ve heard a lot about attempts by advertisers to abandon the use of gender stereotypes entirely, such as the Unstereotype Alliance, this cause is far bigger than a single scheme or campaign.

Just last week, a survey by the Campaign Against Living Miserably and Joe Media found that two-thirds of British men thought negative gender stereotypes were a source of psychological damage.

So, we asked the industry – from activists to strategists, creatives to chief executives and media owners to data scientists – what actions their organizations have been taking lately to tackle the use of gendered stereotypes.

How do you solve a problem like... gender stereotypes in advertising?

Imogen Tazzyman, executive creative director, McCann Manchester

For me, it begins well before you get anywhere near an ad.

We’ve seen a few things recently with shocking gender stereotypes in, and I think what leaves me most disappointed is knowing just how many people will have seen it and didn’t see a problem – or didn’t feel able to call one out. And that begins with not just creating a diverse team in the first place, but creating an atmosphere of true inclusion too. Something we bake into every part of our process now. Who’s briefing it in? Who’s writing it? Who’s shooting it? Who’s in it? Diversity isn’t a problem to be solved, it’s the answer to the problem.

Susie Lyons, head of strategy, Americas, Virtue

Ban the word ’guilt’, which is used disproportionately towards women to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat, what we shouldn’t and shouldn’t watch, and how we should feel about it. Food messaging of ’guilt free’, ’no guilt’ and ’low guilt’ perpetuates the idea that women should always be on diets, should always seek out the diet version of real foods and that we should feel shame when we stray.

Referring to entertainment that is made by and for women as ’guilty pleasures’ positions what we enjoy as less-than. Is reality TV any less real than sports? Is a made for TV movie less of a fun escape than a Marvel one? Is the only real difference the gender skew of the audience?

Seb Tomich, senior vice-president and global head of advertising and marketing solutions, The New York Times

Consumers and brands are being challenged to think bigger. Since last summer, we have been conducting rigorous, multi-layered research and interviews, and tapping into The New York Times’ vast first-party data to outline recommendations around gender as part of the work behind Pivotal, our thought leadership platform. Through this research, we’ve discovered the nuances of how consumers think and feel about gender, and how brands can use this as an opportunity to embrace this knowledge and understand what it means for a brand to be relevant today.

This is a liberating moment – one in which brands can explore, experiment and expand how they tell stories.

Sarah Jenkins, managing director, Saatchi & Saatchi

You solve a problem like ending the use of gender stereotypes in advertising by being brutally honest about what’s happening behind the camera as much as what is being shown on camera.

It’s not rocket science. In every agency, we need to look at who’s writing the scripts. Who is putting the treatment together? What director are we working with? It’s those people who have the biggest influence on what’s shown on screen. It’s on all of us to work with more female directors, hire female creative teams, hire female planners. Pay them properly, give them great opportunities on client briefs and not just the beauty brands. That will naturally result in stories and brand narratives that feel real, human and authentic.

If we only think about gender stereotypes in advertising with just a cursory check on the scripts being written by an all-male team, based on a male planner’s brief, shaped by a male creative director, who then hand it over to one of their favourite male directors – there’s little hope.

The work has to be done internally for it to even stand a chance of making a difference to what’s seen externally.

Kristen Sanger, head of global contributor marketing, Shutterstock

The issue in advertising is clear: the lack of diverse representation throughout the creative process yields stereotypical, harmful and homogenous content. With the right tools, people and information, the industry can effectively overturn negative portrayals with accurate depictions of our world.

We can forge ahead by retraining technology, such as AI programming, to rid itself of its human biases as we look to use more data and insights within the creative process. And behind the lens, we need to ensure that diverse talent is in place to create authentic work. It is crucial that marketers and creatives partner with technology leaders within organizations to embed inclusivity across all aspects of the creative process.

Mordecai, global innovation leader and activist

What we’re seeing at agencies is a move towards inclusion to drive the impact of creative, such as Mediacom’s move towards ’inclusive planning’. Not only do we need to steer our campaigns away from stereotypes in the creative, but we also need to think similarly to address where and how we are targeting.

To get to a place where the work stands true to 2020’s [ASA] ban on gender stereotypes, inclusion and equity cannot be delivered in a man’s world. If we’re not creating true equality in our creative processes the work will not grow to where it needs to for the very consumers it’s trying to reach.

Our work as creative marketers stands in a consumer lens that is as intersectional as it is non-binary. Abolition of gender stereotypes that are as archaic as mad men leaders and the further gender binary narrative tropes that limit people’s individuality will be the only way to reach true inclusion. Beyond the tokenism of a few campaigns, we can’t expect creative that ’smashes the patriarchy’ without actually doing it.

Grace Francis, chief experience officer, Karmarama

It is easy to claim that advertising is a reflection of culture, mirroring the wider traits of society. Those of us that work in the industry understand advertising is culture and our influence comes with accountability. This is about diversity, the range of people represented on our screens, but it is also about breaking away from shorthands and stereotypes that are at best lazy, at worst damaging.

The subject of gender identity, and by extension gender expression, is present in every meeting I attend because I am non-binary. Spoken or unspoken, my presence asks people to hold in mind the question of gender and what we expect of someone who identifies as that gender.

To end gender stereotyping in our advertising, we need to end it in our agencies – that begins with creating safe spaces to authentically represent ourselves at work. I have the privilege of working in an agency where my identity and the identity of others is respected. That carries through in conversations, in client engagement and into the creative work.

Alice Li, senior cultural and innovation researcher, Sparks & Honey

The way consumers interact with content has fundamentally changed. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the long-term shift to digitalization and inspired a boom of options. The immediacy and judgment-free context of e-commerce, online streaming and virtual communities have opened a new door for self-exploration. As a result, these online spaces are shifting from identity-based to interest-based, and so is algorithmic advertising.

Alongside the rising trend of gender fluidity and the consumer-centred power shift, advertising is no longer merely targeting a demographic. To be effective, it should target a set of beliefs and interests. In this context, the new ban and avoidance of gender stereotypes is like wifi access in a café – a basic expectation. If a brand doesn’t expand into hyper-personalization to fit individuality, actively contribute to the social conversation or, worst of all, if it becomes out of touch with the cultural spirit of today, it will likely become irrelevant and ignored by consumers.

Carly Avener, managing director, Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett’s ambition is to deliver ’Populist Creativity’ for our clients, and what work can be populist if it doesn’t resonate with people from all backgrounds, races and walks of life?

Representation in the work we produce is a fundamental part of creating the best work we can for our clients. We have a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and have a non-negotiable casting policy in place to make a clear statement of intent about the agency we are, the people we want to work with and the ads we want to make.

This policy features prominently at the top of each casting brief that goes out the door and helps ensure our creative output for clients reflects all facets of our wonderfully diverse society along with positively promoting its richness and dispelling any negative stereotypes.

Chaaya Mistry, diversity strategist, Rapp UK

Tapping into – and being able to truly represent – the spectrum of fiercely individual experiences that exist within our society is at the very heart of Rapp’s approach to creating more inclusive marketing.

Over the last six months, we’ve been reviewing and reinvigorating our methodologies (from where we insight mine to how we review data to what is fed into the creative brief) ensuring that we as strategists are making a conscious effort to remove our blinkers throughout our entire journey, challenging our own assumptions and bias towards audiences – whether it’s about their race, age, sexual orientation or gender.

Collette Eccleston, senior vice-president, pragmatic brain science, Material

While there’s increasing awareness of gender stereotypes and how limiting they can be, I don’t expect them to go anywhere soon. Brands may get more attention by challenging stereotypes, but once the novelty wears off, the message itself may be more difficult to break through because consumers are trying to figure out the people in the ad.

Advertising relies on stereotypes because they are efficient, and brands will need to and find alternative ways of getting their ideas across in a short period of time like utilizing pronouns. The Pronoun Project pledge (created by T3, a Material company) is one example of how we can push brands to rethink the role of gender in advertising by encouraging them to understand consumers’ pronouns. Loss in communication efficiency can be amendable with inclusivity and empowerment.

Ilinca Barsan, director of data science, Wunderman Thompson

Whenever we build a prototype powered by machine learning, we consider all the ways in which things could possibly go wrong. That’s how we found, for example, that women’s face masks were twice as likely to be misidentified as duct tape or gags/restraints by popular pre-trained computer vision models compared to men.

We cannot allow AI to reinforce harmful existing stereotypes, so we need to examine the data we are feeding our models carefully in order to responsibly reflect society. One could argue that machines are actually much more efficient at unlearning harmful bias than humans, assuming you provide them with the right input to correct prior judgements. If only there was a ’retrain’ option for culture!

Jenny Kirby, managing partner, GroupM

Defining a person’s role, desires or behaviours by their gender is lazy and reductive. Take the UK government’s recent ‘stay home’ ads portraying women doing domestic chores, which alienated millions of working women, but equally the men who take on these roles. Our clients know that these ads where gender stereotypes are deployed are ineffective because they do not reflect real life.

More thoughtful approaches from advertisers such as Unilever involve initiatives to root out stereotypes from marketing. It’s the responsible thing to do to further diversity, equity and inclusion commitments, and it’s also good business when advertising relies on an audience identifying with a brand’s message to achieve the desired outcome.

Xavier Rees, chief executive officer, Havas London and Havas CX Helia

With advertising’s reach and power to influence society comes a responsibility to set the right tone – and that includes not propagating harmful stereotypes, of any kind. While advertisers are increasingly mindful of the issue – the number of influential brands in the Unstereotype Alliance is a testament to that – there often remains a discord between representation versus role.

Filling an ad with diverse characters, only to have them act in ways that reinforce unhelpful stereotypes, does more harm than good, irrespective of intent. For agencies, it’s something to consider right at the start of a brief, as part of the audience insight and strategy work. If you’re only thinking about stereotypes at casting, it’s probably too late.

David Proudlock, head of strategy, Crispin Porter Bogusky London

The root of the problem is adversity to risk: brands worry obsessively about offending people.

In an effort to minimize that risk, they turn to what they consider safe, comfortable stereotypes – nappy changing mum, office dad, experience-seeking millennial. Safe, maybe (although that’s increasingly debatable) but equally there is no insight, nothing distinct to connect with and engage the audience.

By falling back on predictable stereotypes brands simply aren’t reflecting the three-dimensional characters people really are. Why, for example, would you reduce someone to ‘generic white dad’ when they come from the generation that invented rave, took drugs, brought hip-hop to the mainstream, grew up watching Tarantino and travelled the world before they were 25? These ‘real’ people are way more interesting than the stereotype.

So in summary, instead of falling back on stereotypes, it’s vital for brands to pick a side and take a point of view on the lives of their audiences. And that point of view needs to be shaped by the culture and themes their audience are actively consuming.

Want to join the debate? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.