Stereotypes in ads are bad for men’s health – so what’s the cure?
The impact of narrow gender stereotypes on men’s mental health is better understood than ever before. But as adland grapples with how to tackle the problem, there’s debate over whether it’s best to reinvent expectations around gender stereotypes or try to abandon their use altogether.
Alex Grieve has a problem with Peppa Pig. “Or, more specifically, Daddy Pig. Because as a daddy, I don’t see myself reflected back.“
The chief creative officer of AMV BBDO avows that: “I am not inept, lazy or hopeless. I like flowers, cooking and, as it happens, cleaning. When my football shirt gets dyed pink in the wash, I do not declare like Daddy Pig that ’it looks like one of mummy’s dresses’. I joked with my girls about this at the beginning and, after a while, Peppa Pig went from being played all the time to none of the time. Not because I forced them (well, not much) but rather because they ended up agreeing that Daddy Pig really was a ’silly daddy’.”
Stereotypes are just not true, says Grieve. “What they loudly say is, ’you don’t get me’. Any work that elicits this response will fail to connect. This is the lesson of Daddy Pig.“
Gender stereotypes, whether communicated via advertising messages, popular media (including Peppa Pig) or throughout wider society, contribute significantly to ill mental health. Increasingly, it is recognized that eradicating sexist tropes is a public health cause, as well as a moral and political issue. In particular, the ad industry now recognizes that outdated, narrow depictions of manhood and masculinity are just as corrosive as misogynistic tropes.
One recent survey suggests that public awareness of these harms is more widespread than ever before. The MANdate study, conducted by the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) and Joe Media, found 64% of British men believe negative portrayals in advertising cause real damage. An even larger majority feared that stereotypes of masculinity broadcast across social media endangered their mental health.
While brands and advertisers are taking more concrete action to tackle the issue, from the UN-led Unstereotype Alliance to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ban on gender stereotypes in the UK, the question still remains – how can ad agencies speed along the elimination of negative portrayals of men?
According to Lori Meakin, founder of creative agency Joint, the work begins with listening to alarm bells such as the Calm survey. “We need to properly hear the 64% of men in MANdate’s study,“ she says. “The way we currently represent men, women and those who defy binary definition is frustratingly narrow and often downright damaging.“
But she says, the solution is simple. “Get out there and listen to the ways in which you ignore them or diminish them. Only then can we reflect the spectrum of masculinities and femininities that are people’s real experiences, and dismantle the sneaky, systemic sexism that belittles us all.“
Laura Gibson, head of social at Cheil UK, suggests reinterpreting age-old gender associations in creative. “It’s time to change how we define men – how we define their confidence, their bravery, their strength. It is time to forget about ‘man up’ culture and tell men that it’s OK to reach out.
“That’s being confident. That’s being brave. That’s being strong.“
Reinvent or remove?
For Steven Moy, chief executive officer at Barbarian, two solutions come to mind. “The first short answer is simple: mandate diverse teams. Both clients and agencies must hold themselves and each other accountable to this with every assignment. The second short answer is to empower your entire teams to listen to each other when interrogating the work. Allow for an environment of psychological safety and empowerment where team members across departments, levels and walks of life can comfortably question the work at any stage of development.“
Tamryn Kerr, creative director of VMLY&R, has similar suggestions. “The next generation of men are watching, so advertisers need to combat harmful stereotypes every day. And as creatives, it’s also in our best interest. Don’t be afraid to ask different people around you what they think, and be sure to listen – especially if you begin to hear common themes emerging.
“Battle unconscious bias by flipping characters’ genders in your script to help avoid unintentional slip-ups. Have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ads out there so you know the best and worst in class.“
However, Greg Ricciardi, the president, chief exec and founder of agency 20nine, suggests that agencies abandon gender segmentation altogether, rather than merely reforming how they use it. “Brands are more concerned than ever about their role in breaking down gender stereotypes, but they need to understand that the needed shift is less about individual campaigns and more about an overarching mindset. Continue the shift to real life and less of the fantasy of what Hollywood has defined men to be. It’s not the 1950s anymore. It’s time to show equality and less segmentation of the genders. Start there and better advertising will follow.“
Bob Bailey agrees. The founder and chief exec of Truth Collective says: “The gender explosion and understanding has barely begun, with a growing appreciation of gender in myriad forms and terms, so let’s not fall into the other gender stereotype or sexism of binary, two gender only.
“And if brands are afraid to buck tradition, they should remember that 85% of consumers say equitable representation shows a brand’s commitment to all customers, and if they do the same they’ll be selling plenty.“
Grieve’s conclusion has led him to a similar place. He says we must end gender stereotypes, and not just because it is the right and necessary thing to do but also because it is the smart thing to do. “Ultimately, we are in the effectiveness game. The quicker we all understand gender stereotypes stop work from working, the quicker they will end.“