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Why assumption is the mother of all advertising stereotyping

For a long time, the real world has been carefully excluded from advertising agency offices. Most of the stuff coming out of these offices has been – and still is – a sort of clean-shaven representation of a world that stopped existing decades ago.

It’s not the movies out there, guys.

Maybe as an industry we haven’t been listening closely enough and probably we haven’t been acting swiftly enough. As a result, we have to work around new advertising rules that are constantly in flux, and that have landed more creatives in hot water than ever before.

The problem is, where do we draw the line? When does a scenario depicting a typical situation shade into thoughtless prejudice or insulting imagery?

Does showing several men doing interesting stuff while the only woman in the commercial is sitting on a park bench next to a pram constitute harmful stereotyping? Or how about two new dads who forget about their kids while drooling over a sandwich conveyor belt?

Well, Volkswagen and Philadelphia found out the hard way that it is when their ads got banned in the UK under recently introduced gender stereotyping rules.

Brought into force this summer, the Advertising Standards Authority’s new rules mean ads that are deemed to depict harmful gender stereotyping will be taken out of circulation. To quote the ASA directly, problematic instances include:

  • An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
     
  • An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.
     
  • Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives.
     
  • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.
     
  • An ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing.
     
  • An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.

Whatever your view, these rules are here to stay and they will claim many more advertising victims in order to prevent consumer victims.

No harm in common sense

Advertising is a lot about enlarging reality and toying with cultural behaviour or commonly shared habits. There is something called impact we need to consider, and creating it often means finding situations from real life but with a twist that turns people’s head or turns the corners of their mouths into a smile.

The good news is that real life doesn’t always go according to harmful stereotypes.

Mix the conventional with the unconventional. Shake up the familiar with the unexpected. Surprise us a little – isn’t that what you’re supposed be doing in advertising?

Maybe moms with prams are still the majority, but that doesn’t mean other combinations are impossible or even undesirable for your brand. Look around the streets of Copenhagen and you’ll find about half the pram-pushers are men. And somewhere in Chicago a gay couple might be taking their kids out for a walk with the lesbian birth mothers with whom they share custody. Have a little imagination for a change. Enlarge horizons and attract new consumers.

The Cannes Lions festival this year introduced the Glass Lion to recognise advertising that challenges gender norms and to promote communication that avoids stereotyping.

This is another clear sign that our industry is beginning to take gender stereotyping more seriously. Nothing like an award to stop all the moaning about how much trouble it causes and encourage people to get on with the work of being creative. Is it a limitation? Yes, it is – so let it spur you on to make your best work yet.

If that’s not enough, we can make an even better argument for taking a critical look at creative work in terms of stereotyping. There is plenty of research to show that mass stereotyping does not successfully bring business ideas to life.

It may have worked once, it may have worked for a long time, but it won’t work anymore thanks to the new generation of consumers on the rise.

People are not cattle you can drive into a corral and approach with the same fodder. That little insight alone should convince businesses to change tack in terms of defining target audiences and sifting them into more individual targets.

Find out who is actually buying your product, service and brand instead of trying to imagine who might be interested. There is difference there. Don’t assume that the character of a product will always point to a stereotypical group of people.

Assumption is the mother of all stereotyping. It is very easy to assume that what feels right is right, but it can turn out to be very costly. Here’s an interesting example:

Suppose you’re going to market a video game. Naturally you assume that gaming = kid stuff, so you aim at teenagers with everything you’ve got, totally going for this group with ads and events perfectly kitted out for that age bracket and lifestyle.

But wait – what’s this? Nearly a quarter of all video games are purchased by consumers aged 40 and older, and women make up about 38% of all video game sales. You’ve just lost out on millions of true potentials that are actually buying more video games than those kids can afford.

Talk about harmful.

Consumers have always had the right to complain about advertising that they found tasteless, misleading or downright offensive. That has been a good thing, as it kept us on our toes and prevented us from harming the brands we represent.

Advertising has always been exposed for all to see and believe or judge, and now any brand with a commercial or online ad is easy prey. What can you do? Can you be careful enough to avoid any commentary whatsoever that may lead to your seemingly innocuous commercial being banned from TV?

It’s complicated. What it comes down to is that you revert to common sense when casting your ideas and hope that the people who see your ads will do the same.

Otherwise we’ll be heading for a world in which the only flavor is vanilla, the average age is presumed to be six, and the only people who can speak are those who don’t really have anything to say.

Erik Saelens is the founder and executive strategic director of Brandhome

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