We have so many biases ‘baked in’ to our thinking.
Young children are constantly searching for clues about their place in the world. One of the places that they get their information is from marketing, and all that entails.An obvious example is the colour designation of clothes for children. Historically all children’s clothing was white until about the age of 6, as apparently it was easier to bleach clean. But it hasn’t always been the ‘rules’ that we now conform to.
Any look around a typical clothing retailer today will show more blue for boys and pink for girls, and the trend for gender reveal parties are based around these colour references. Yet according to the Britannica.com:
“At the beginning of the 20th century, some stores began suggesting “sex-appropriate” colors. In 1918 the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department claimed the “generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
The current ‘blue for boys, pink for girls’ is attributed to the baby boomers of the 1940’s.
There are so many gender biases ‘baked in’ to our thinking. When generating and reviewing creative ideas it can be helpful to consider your assumptions and what bias might be in play, and then tackle it. Take the blue for boys/pink for girls attribution. It’s just ‘there’ for many of us.
But when it comes to deciding what ideas should make it into your creative work, exploring your bias and challenging any stereotypes is definitely part of the process. The Australian organisation ShEqual has created its list of stereotypes by analysing a library of campaigns released between 2016 and 2021. They show a clear link between how men and women are portrayed and violence against women in their study.
The stereotypes identified by ShEqual are: the model mother, the passive little girl, the observed woman, the sexualised woman, the pretty face, the magical grandmother and the ticked box. Sadly it’s all to easy to find current examples of all of these in a quick search across retail, fashion, sport and so on. But some brands are reaping the benefits from portraying women and girls in more realistic ways, like the Always, Like A Girl campaign (see below). It’s not just a ‘nice to have’ – its goal number 5 on the UN’s SDG goals – achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
Their report reveals the stereotype, the reality of the situation in stats, and has suggestions how marketers can get real in their representations and how to get equal. They also have some great suggestions for how to do your own analysis of stereotypes in advertising (or any other form of communications).
They have also called out women who are not seen:
‘We also want to bring attention to The Missing Women, the women that don’t appear in ads at all because they don’t come with a pre-defined storyline created by stereotypes. These women are part of the world and deserve to be seen, represented and recognised as much as authentic portrays of stereotyped women do.”
Stereotype – The Model Mother
Ads should represent the reality of family dynamics, showing mothers in paid employment, nurturing fathers, rainbow families and single parent homes.
Women have agency over their lives, and advertising should not position them as people to be observed, gazed at or narrated by men.
Get equal: Broaden the parenting narrative by showing rainbow families, grandparents and extended family, and single parents, in addition to straight nuclear families.
Stereotype – The Passive Little Girl
All children should feel empowered to run, play and learn in any way they wish.
But ads are telling children that boys should engage in active play and girls must be sitting to play. Boys can run around with cars, lightsabers and get outside, but girls are often shown sitting with one another, playing with dolls and home appliances and too often everything is pink!
Get real: Remove the gendering of toys by avoiding gendered colour signals and showing boys and girls playing together in creative ways, both sitting down and running around, with the same toys.
Stereotype – The Observed Women
She often loses her voice to a male narrator or exists for the Male Gaze — made an object for male characters to watch and comment on. This stereotype often intersects with the stereotype of The Sexualised Woman, with the camera acting as the observer as the woman acts seductively for a male audience. This encourages men to view women as objects.
Get equal: Challenge who is given the voice of authority in an ad. If the ad is for a product or service that is traditionally considered ‘masculine’, subvert the stereotype by using a female voice of authority.
Stereotype – The Pretty Face
Women deserve to be seen and valued by society as smart, independent and equal. Women are more educated than ever, but some ads still show women as nothing more than a pretty face. While this can present subtly in some campaigns, it still sends the message that women are less intelligent than men and not capable of deep or intellectual thought.
Get real: Utilise the wardrobe, props and setting in addition to dialouge to represent the character’s backstory. For example, use costume and props like books and magazines to show that a female character is also a doctor, scientist or business owner.
Stereotype – The Magical Grandmother
Older women are active and influential in society and should be represented that way in ads. Women aged 55 and over are notably missing from advertising, and when they do appear they are shown as the magical grandmotherly figure, most often in the kitchen, serving food at Christmas or smiling and supporting younger characters. They are always perfectly presented and rarely given lines.
Older women are optimistic, active and participate fully in society and should be represented this way in ads.
Get Real: Show women of all ages participating in every activity without being inhibited by their age. Target older women in your advertising. Advertising to older women makes good business sense because they are responsible for a higher proportion of household spending.
Get Equal: Put women in positions of authority in your ads by making them narrators and sources of information for industries/ products that require a trusted voice, or with action by showing them fixing things or making decisions about finance.
Stereotype – The Ticked Box
Women, of all races, ages and abilities should exist as main characters (with lines!) across advertising campaigns. But white, able bodied, and straight characters still dominate stories. Always maintain that diversity is not a box to be ticked but a way to represent the world as it is and connect with your audience in an authentic way.
Get Equal: Cast women in roles that are traditionally given to men to challenge traditional ideas of male-dominated activities.
Because stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our social narrative, advertisers often assume that using stereotypes is a normal and accepted way to convey their message or show consumers who the audience is.
These stereotypes are helpful to acknowledge that they exist and then create work that does not conform to the gender stereotype.
If I was working on any campaign or communications that wanted to speak to women then I would definitely reference these in order to generate better more inclusive and more equal creative work. There’s a very helpful checklist below to help you to do this in your own work.
Challenge stereotypes with yourself and your team with this checklist
- Take a look at past campaigns to see if stereotypes are present. How could they have been changed?
- What does authentic representation look like for the brands and products we work with?
- How what’s my role in making sure ads don’t just include white, able-bodied and heterosexual people?
- What check points can be built into the whole ad process to watch out for stereotypes?
- What quick visual cues can we use to broaden the parenting narrative for viewers?
- How could advertising encourage a more balanced perspective of work and play across the genders?
- What should we consider if we’re writing an older female character? How do we show breadth and authenticity in this demographic?
- How can i keep challenging my unconsious bias in my work and my everyday life surrounded by ads?
You can read more about the stereotypes, as well as ShEqual’s recommendations for combatting them, here. ShEqual.