Tackling gender stereotype in ads: 5 steps you should be taking right now

The ad industry has in the past been afflicted by age-old stereotypes perpetuated by series such as Mad Men, where male dominance is rife and women assume the role of subordinates in the workplace - an image reinforced by many of the ads that came out of Madison Avenue in the 1960s. But despite progress, the advertising industry has struggled to portray both women and men proportionally and realistically.

To help marketers break out of this cycle, World Federation of Advertisers has launched a new guidance called “A Guide to Progressive Gender Portrayals in Advertising; the Case for Unstereotyping Ads”, designed to help brands ensure its advertising reflects a more progressive portrayal of both sexes.

Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and JWT, found that 85% of women say film and advertising need to catch up with the real world. This is based on the analysis of more than 2,000 English-language films. The study adds that modern women don’t identify with what they see in ads with 30% feeling that advertising shows women as perceived by men. Just 3% of women are portrayed as aspirational in ads, or in leadership positions, and only 0.03% of women portrayed as funny. Only 1% of women were portrayed as heroes or problem solvers.

The study also said that there are often twice as many male actors in ads as female actors and 25% of ads feature men only, while only 5% of ads feature women only. 18% of ads feature only male voices, while less than 3% of ads feature only female voices. Further analysis demonstrated that women were still clearly second best in more subtle but important ways. In the field of humour, for example, men were almost twice as likely to be funny as women; women were more likely to be objectified with one in ten female actors shown in sexually revealing clothing – six times the number of male actors – and when it comes to intelligence, men are 62% more likely to be shown as smart (e.g.portrayal of inherently intelligent characters, such as a doctor).

Other measures on age, location and work followed a similar pattern, underlining the ongoing pervasiveness of gender inequality in advertising. Similar issues have also been highlighted by Unilever, with 40% of women not relating at all to the women they see in ads, according to a year-long audit of the advertising industry in 2015.

The guide aims to provide marketers with practical tips about how they can bring about change in their own organisations. It identifies key steps that brands should take to ensure their organisations more broadly embrace the unstereotype movement, such as ensuring they have diverse teams both internally and at their external partners, tracking performance, identifying a clear purpose that enables the brand to celebrate diversity, thinking long-term and reaching out across the company, well beyond the marketing department.

It also outlines the benefits of taking a more progressive approach from a political and social perspective, as well as the business benefits for brands, particularly given the number of purchase decisions that are influenced or made by women.

Steps to take moving forward

There are a number of steps that marketers can take to improve the way they and their brands address the issue of gender. In order to get the advertisements right, these steps need to take into account both the creative but also the right processes that lead to better unstereotyped ads.

Encourage diversity in your teams

Stereotypes are often not just the product of lazy thinking but also cultural conditioning. By having diverse teams – both internally and externally – working on creative and brand issues sterotypes are more likely to be challenged during the development process and hopefully unconscious bias reduced. The end result should be a more powerful message based on a deep insight that resonates more effective with the target audience.

One such example is HP’s demand for a more diverse team to work on its account is an important step in the right direction. Ultimately the team that works on a brand should reflect the user and target base as they will be better positioned to spot opportunities and sensitivities.

ASK YOURSELF: Does my internal team and partner team at my agencies reflect my target audience?

Track performance

Marketing is often about incremental gains and while everyone wants to see rapid progress across the board, consistent small steps from across the brand landscape will ensure we at least move in the right direction. #SeeHer’s GEM approach or Geena Davis’s research team both allow brands to use data to track gender approach as part of the pre-testing process. This allows brands to eliminate or improve elements that are likely to be damaging to their reputation before they are seen by the public.

ASK YOURSELF: How am I able to track improvements in gender approach? Speak to your research partners to identify clear metrics that can be monitored. What is the representation of women versus men in our ads?

Find your purpose

The process by which brands can develop an authentic purpose, that’s to say trying to uncover the underlying truth or thing that your brand stands for involves challenging many of the same issues and thoughts that can lead to damaging messages. Think Always #likeagirl, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty or GoldieBlox’s empowering girls to problem solving. By working through the strategic process to identify where your brand can make a real difference to its supply chain, consumers or workers, you will be able to identify the structural challenges that stop your brand embracing and celebrating diversity.

ASK YOURSELF: What does my brand stand for that benefits both men and women?

Think long-term

We live in a cynical age and simply launching a campaign that has its heart in the right place is not enough. Campaigners and consumers want to see real commitment that goes beyond a single message or a particular day. If you are clearly investing time and money in doing the right thing and can point to clear improvements you are more likely to avoid the hubris that can come with any mistakes. That’s what will differentiate a progressive brand from a brand with a progressive one-off campaign.

ASK YOURSELF: Where do we want to be in the next three years on gender diversity and proper representation and build an action plan for improvement?

Go beyond marketing

Ultimately taking action on gender requires company-wide change and not just small tweaks to the process. Getting this right means establishing a culture that is gender aware both for people internally and for external messaging. It’s no good having great marketing if your company is being castigated for failure to act on equal pay or poor professional development. And even if you’re doing great on gender sensitive marketing, your efforts will be undermined if you ignore the other aspects of diversity (e.g. race, national origin, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation). Increasingly these measures should run right through the whole value chain so you will also need to tackle suppliers too.

ASK YOURSELF: How can I promote more positive, diverse portrayals of men and women internally and among suppliers?

Unilever's chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed said that while the ad world is seeing "real progress", it doesn’t yet go far enough or wide enough.

"Our job won’t be done as long as ads still diminish or limit the role of women and men in society. I hope that this WFA guide can share knowledge and insights across global brand owners, and critically, to their 60 national advertiser associations on six continents so that they can see why this is no longer just a social imperative but a business one. This is exactly the kind of collective, cross-sector collaboration that is needed and which I hope leads to sustained transformation across our industry,” he said.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women, said the UN Women applauds the work WFA is doing to redefine how the industry shows who people are, not just what they are.

“We know that harmful stereotypes of both women and men have a deep impact on how we see and treat each other. Intentionally changing those images have huge potential to positively transform our culture and bring us closer to true, inclusive equality,"Mlambo-Ngcuka added.

“Diversity comes in many forms and advertising can play a huge role in showcasing and celebrating the extraordinary mosaic of human diversity. There are many political and social reasons why brands should do this but at the end of the day there is a wealth of evidence underpinning a compelling business case to act,” Stephan Loerke (pictured), CEO of WFA, said.

“Our industry needs to be brave enough to depict society in a realistic way rather than reinforce potentially harmful stereotypes. We’re witnessing a broader movement; it’s time for the marketing industry to play its part in promoting and reflecting diversity and equality in all its different facets and guises and at a global level,” David Wheldon, CMO RBS and WFA president, said.

The launch is part of the WFA’s commitment as a founding member of the #Unstereotype Alliance, which was launched by UN Women with the support of multiple global brands, including Unilever, Procter and Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Johnson & Johnson and Mattel in Cannes last year.