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The stereotyping of women in ads is getting worse

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By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

March 8, 2023 | 8 min read

Women are increasingly being shown in ‘domestic’ roles rather than professional settings according to new research.

Image of women in kitchen

Women are still being stereotyped in ads

In 2016, Unilever vowed that it would no longer stereotype women in ads. The FMCG-giant and world's biggest advertiser told its numerous creative agencies that the role women play in its advertising must be broadened to “represent aspirations and wider achievements beyond product-related responsibilities”. It was a landmark moment and led to a partnership with the United Nations to launch The Unstereotype Alliance, aimed at inspiring mass change in the industry. Brands like Google, Mars, Facebook, Microsoft, WPP all committed to stop the stereotyping of women in adverts.

But, new research has found that when it comes to online ads, things are moving in the wrong direction.

The good news is that women are appearing more frequently in ads; over the last two years, women featured 34% more than men. That's where the progress ends. Today, women shown in domestic or family settings has increased to 66% of the 10,000 ads analysed in 2022, compared to just 32% in 2021. Meanwhile, the percentage of women that were portrayed in professional settings decreased from 16% in 2021 to just 7% in 2022.

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The findings came from CreativeX, an analysis company working with the likes of Nestle and Mondelez. It used AI to review 10,885 ads featuring over 20,000 people from leading FMCG, food and beverage, healthcare, and alcohol brands. The ads, supported by over $110m in ad spend, appeared on Meta, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok globally over the course of 2022.

But it gets worse. Even when women are featured in ads, there’s a bias to those with lightest skin tones. Across all ads, women with darker skin tones featured 80% less than women with the lightest skin tones. In addition, these same women appeared 58% less frequently in professional settings.

Aline Santos, chief brand officer at Unilever, told The Drum that it made for “sad”, but ultimately "unsurprising" reading. To explain what's happening, she pointed to the recent Gender Equality Attitudes survey from the UN which found that since Covid-19, 50% of women have reported an increase in time spent cleaning (vs 33% of men), and a 37% increase in time spent cooking and serving meals (vs 16% of men).

“As an industry, we must not accept this regression as ‘normal’ or reflect this in the work that we produce," she said. "We need to ensure that our creative thinking and more importantly our values, beliefs and determination to create an equitable, diverse and inclusive industry remain unshakable.”

The problems don’t stop with the creative departments, though. CreativeX found that more ad spend is being put behind women displayed in these family and domestic settings, increasing the reach and influence of these portrayals with consumers. In 2022, while 7% of women were featured in professional settings, these portrayals were only supported by 4.7% of total ad spend. These adverts also received 35% less ad spend than those depicting men in similar roles. In comparison, 44% of ad spend behind ads featuring women was spent on portrayals in domestic and family settings.

Meanwhile, ad spend behind darker-skinned women fell by 20% last year compared with 2021, with women with lighter skin tones receiving 242% more ad spend than women with darker skin tones. In contrast, the percentage of ad spend behind men with lighter skin tones in professional and leadership settings increased by 106% from 2021 to 2022, from 15% to 31%.

Charlotte Parks-Taylor, co-owner and chief strategy officer at Cream, an agency that counts FMCG and beauty brands among its clients, put the disconnect between the creative execution and media backing down to the “Darwinian” algorithms which underpin the platforms these ads run on.

“We all want to deliver the strongest possible ROI on a campaign, but this means we become slavish to the system dictated by the social media giants,” she explained. “Their view of strong creative remains purely based on metrics like reach, engagement or leads, and is not set up to value and therefore upweight delivery towards innovative examples of creativity, or importantly, progressive representation. Agencies and brands should be reassessing what ‘success’ looks like in campaigns by setting new KPIs which are more mindful of social impact rather than short-term sales, but also by employing smarter campaign pre- and post-testing to gauge whether advertising is serving these vital objectives of representation.”

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A Geena Davis Institute study of 2.7m YouTube ads found that women-led and gender-balanced videos yielded 30% more views. Ipsos found demonstrated that ads portraying women in strong roles positively impacted long-term brand relationships and short-term purchasing behavior.

Unilever’s Santos said if the industry wants to see the numbers reverse, CMOs and agency leaders need to “challenge everything” in the process of a campaign.

“We have known for some time that if you want to create this systemic change, you need to interrogate all facets of the marketing process. This is what we are doing through ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ which is about broadening our 2016 commitment to not only remove stereotypes from our ads but to create marketing that is truly inclusive and representative of the people we serve – both on screen and behind the camera. Which means everything is being challenged - from insight generation and creative development to driving the agenda for a more inclusive and diverse creative workforce in our agencies, casting choices and production partners,” she said.

“When we launched the Unstereotype initiative back in 2016, we knew we were tackling a huge issue. But we also realized that real change takes time. It moves at a toddler’s pace – more of a shuffle than a stomp – but its impact is unmistakable and a true reminder to keep pushing for change no matter how hard.”

Anna Vogt is chief strategic officer at VMLY&R, an agency that counts Mondelez, Starbucks and Wendy's among its clients. She described the results as "alarming" and said agencies can help reverse the trend by creating processes that consciously disrupt decision making.

"Acting as gatekeepers to strategies, ideas and executions, having a process in place that partners with clients to ensure decisions are scrutinised for representing the right values will help us set the industry back on the right track," she said.

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