Analysis: Is gender representation in SG ads just an afterthought?

Over the weekend, Singapore's minister for home affairs and law, K Shanmugam, unveiled plans to work on a comprehensive review of issues affecting women to bring about a mindset change on values such as gender equality and respect for women. In a speech titled "Conversations on Women Development", Shanmugam said the government is looking to release a whitepaper in the first half of next year, which will aim to address women-related issues that Singaporeans are concerned with. The whitepaper will also aim to be a further roadmap for progress, a pathway towards greater gender equality, he added.

Shanmugam said a series of engagements will take place from October that will see the participation of people from all walks of life. The government will then use insights gained from the engagement sessions to form the basis of the whitepaper. He also said that gender equality is something that has been important to the government "for a long time", adding that although many steps have been taken and much progress has been made, it is still work-in-progress in Singapore.  "Equality must not just be formal, but substantive, and takes into account the unique challenges, needs that women face, and the specific effects that policies have on them, to truly level the playing field," Shanmugam said. 

Equality and gender representation has always been a point of conversation in the advertising industry. Women being portrayed in domestic roles such as homemakers, or being hyper-sexualised is not an unfamiliar sight. Back in 2005, burger chain Carls Jr's ignited chatter when it ran an ad that featured Paris Hilton washing a car wearing a bikini, which played up her sexuality as a woman. Separately in 2016, an advertisement for Volkswagen juxtaposing male astronauts with a woman sitting by a stroller was banned for portraying gender stereotypes in advertising. The commercial showed a number of primarily male people taking part in adventurous activities — two male astronauts in space, and a male athlete with a prosthetic leg doing the long jump — before cutting to a mother sitting on a park bench next to a stroller. 

Fast forward to 2020, you'd think such stereotypes would have been put to rest. But we were proven otherwise when industry players called out an ad for condominium Uptown at Farrer for its portrayal of the protagonist and his wife. The ad, which was produced by construction and development company Low Keng Huat showed the male actor being the main narrator and decision-maker when it comes to the choice of residence, while the female actor did not have much say (or lines in the script) in it. The ad also showed the male actor having a “man cave” and getting away from the wife to watch football games, which industry players find to propagate gender stereotypes. The ad saw other brands such as ShopBack releasing a spoof deliberately reversing the roles of the protagonists depicted in the original ad.

Meanwhile, in a recent whitepaper done by AWARE and R3 covering advertising in Singapore, it was highlighted that women in leadership and decision-making positions are not being portrayed frequently enough in advertisements. While brands have started depicting women in professional capacities, almost a quarter of the ads that were reviewed had a storyline that involved a "teacher-student" or a "rescuer-victim" narrative. Among these ads, 69% feature a male in the role of the teacher or rescuer. Additionally, many brands continue to show women in singular roles of mother, wife, and caregiver, the report said. Meanwhile, women are also found to be under-represented in the media. According to an article in 2019 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), women's representation in the media is "drastically insufficient". They are the focus of only 10% of news stories and represent 20% of experts or spokespeople interviewed.

SG brands share their views

When it comes to creating promoting gender balance, marketers have "a huge role" to play, according to Eva-Lotta Gothe, vice president, brand and marketing communications, StarHub. "We need to tell and create stories that portray women and men as they really are," she said, adding that as a brand that focus on communication, StarHub feels an obligation to create stories that are relatable or reflective of challenges individuals may face due to certain societal perceptions or expectations. Gothe also said that brands should make a conscious effort to create a fair gender representation in its ads and marketing efforts. 

[Brands] need to think about [gender representation] at the start of ideation, not as an afterthought.

For StarHub, it is imperative to have a balance when it comes to gender representation as the company believes it reflects its customers, its people and what it believes in.

However, creating a balanced view of gender representation is not the duty of the marketing team alone. For StarHub, although fair gender representation in communications is driven by the marketing team, Gothe said it works very closely with its senior management team for its marketing efforts. Gothe is also of the view that the best way of securing equality, diversity and non-stereotyping is to have diverse teams working within communications, on both client and agency teams.

One thing that marketers have to look out for, however, is unconscious bias that they may have. "Unconscious biases are usually hard to identify, and therefore harder to change, as compared to stereotypes," Gothe said, adding that more often than not, individuals may not even be aware of their own biases. Gothe then suggested preventing this with relevant training so that individuals of the marketing team can learn to recognise them and hopefully act on it.

Agreeing with the important role marketers play in gender representation, Cecilia Wong, head of group retail marketing at UOB. "We are cognisant of the important role that marketing plays in shaping brand and non-brand-related social perceptions of women, and we make every effort to feature women in the work that we do in a manner that reflects the reality of the contemporary woman," Wong said. These efforts include recognising women as key pillars of the society with the fortitude and strength of character to juggle the many roles demanded of them, as well as showing how UOB can help them to achieve their goals and aspirations.

Wong also brought up other women-specific products UOB has launched in the past, designed to support women. In March this year, UOB partnered with Prudential to launch the UOB Lady’s Savings Account, which is a financial solution for women in Singapore that combines a savings account with complimentary medical insurance for six female-related cancers. According to Wong, this solution targets women who may not be placing enough emphasis on their own financial and health needs, and encourages them to remember to take care of themselves as they take care of the people they love.

A global brand perspective

Joining in the conversation is also Unilever, which had two brands listed in the top 10 ads for gender representation. In a conversation with Marketing, Unilever's spokesperson said it is passionate about fair gender representation when it comes to its ads. Since 2016, it has made a global commitment to move its advertising away from stereotypes, recognising that they are often outdated, unhelpful and, in some cases, harmful. The spokesperson added that data from Kantar Millward Brown showed that unstereotypical and progressive advertising creates 37% more branded impact and 28% increase in purchase intent. 

"As one of the world’s biggest advertisers, we have a responsibility to use our influence in breaking outdated stereotypes and harmful social norms that are hindering progress to equality," the spokesperson also said. The brand also launched the Unstereotype Alliance in 2017 with UN Women and other industry leaders. The Unstereotype Alliance is an industry collective united behind the common goal of eliminating stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand led content. This alliance is focused on empowering women in all their diversity to help create a gender equal world.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)

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