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Advertising in 2017: still a manly man’s world

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: gender representations in advertising has barely changed over the past decade. Men doing DIY in their football kit, burger in one hand and techy gadget in the other; women clutching the baby, eating yoghurt seductively in marigolds whilst hoovering – you get the picture. It’s a long-standing issue, but it’s an important one.

Still, the recent decision by the Advertising Standards Authority to ban ads that market exclusively based on gender gives us hope that things might get better. The campaign also aims to ban ads that body shame, and will clarify existing codes that pertain to sexualising and objectifying women. So far, so good, right? And yet, at this late stage, it’s not just overt sexism that we need to worry about in advertising. Whether you’re young and impressionable, or older enough to know better, using grossly sexist stereotypes affects how we view society and what we think is acceptable. Even the more general assumptions we make when creating adverts can unintendedly create toxic messages and reinforce limited options both for women and for men. For example, ads which provide us with a non-typical representation of a man still give us an artificial choice between being ‘manly’ and ‘not manly’, and buy into the mistake of insisting on the importance of our gender rather than simply doing away it. What if you’re not ‘manly’, but not, ‘not manly’ either? What if (god forbid!) you like floral prints and DIY? Why can’t you just be, well, you? This kind of tokenism doesn’t do much for representations of women either – there’s something slightly awkward and patronising about the fanfare surrounding adverts which try to break the gender mould by showing us what we already know to be true – that women can do exactly what men can.

More tactically, marketing products like this is limiting your approach. To use a (highly manufactured) example, by showing your premium lager in the hands of a beefy bloke and aiming your chocolate solely at a girl’s night in, there’s a whole bunch of proud, beer-drinking ladies and chocaholic lads you’re missing out on. When you consider the limitless diversity around us, the possibilities become literally endless. There is inevitably going to be fine line between targeting some and excluding others, but if you want to expand your target market, why not be radical? (And I don’t mean pink power-tools or camouflage-print rubber gloves.) Advertising has its finger on the pulse of modern life, but it needs to be a space filled with dissenting voices and innovation if we’re going to react in a way that doesn’t bore, or worse still, actively offend consumers. Not surprisingly, poorly-judged gags always cost more than they gain. Why would consumers support a company that doesn’t respect them?

At least the movement is heading in the right direction. This year’s Cannes Lions festival marked the first meeting of the Unstereotype Alliance, a new global alliance featuring billion-dollar names such as Facebook, Google, Alibaba and WPP which aims to wipe out stereotypical gender portrayals in all advertising and brand-led content. That’s a pretty powerful shove towards ending sexism in advertising. Still, we might be better than we were, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go. Advertising can be inspiring: it has the potential to offer us up a vision of the world as it could be. We have a chance to do so much better. It’d be great to trail-blaze rather than play catch-up.

Debbie Zaman is founder and MD of Withpr, a technology communications consultancy that is proud to have an entirely female leadership team. She spoke earlier this month at the AdTech Inclusion Summit – a brand new conference focused on fostering diversity and inclusion the ad tech sector.

Cover image: Are you beach body ready, by Duncan C (Flickr)

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