Ban on gender stereotypes - blessing or bane?

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Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Aulona Ulqinaku and Dr Dionysius Ang are both lecturers in marketing. Dr Ulqinaku’s research interests cover the effect of psychological threats (such as low self-esteem, social exclusion, fear of death, nihilism) on individuals and their consumption preferences and choices. Dr Ang’s research focuses on consumer behaviour, particularly as it relates to affect and decision-making.

Aulona Ulqinaku and Dionysius Ang

As of 14 June 2019, a ban prohibiting advertisements depicting harmful gender stereotypes came into force.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a Philadelphia cheese ad showing two new dads distracted by the cheese and forgetting their babies, following complaints that the tongue-in-cheek ad perpetuated gender stereotypes that men were poor child-carers. While to the ASA the advert was considered harmful and offensive towards men, to many fathers that commented on the news, it was not offensive at all. In fact, they found it funny, and the ASA’s ban annoying.

<iframe width="560" height="315" title=”Banned Philadelphia TV Commercial June 2019” src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/avtzdOTbzbo" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Banned Philadelphia TV Commercial June 2019

While the ASA asserts that such rulings address “the potential harms caused by gender stereotyping in advertising”, Mondelez, the parent company of Philadelphia cheese, claims that the ruling puts the company in a no-win situation, having chosen two dads to avoid the stereotypical portrayal of women in child-caring roles. So where should marketers draw the line?

In the first place, what are gender stereotypes?

The ASA identifies six categories of gender stereotypes:

  1. Roles – associating certain occupations or positions with a specific gender
  2. Characteristics – linking behaviours and attributes to particular genders
  3. Mocking individuals for nonconformity to stereotype – making fun of someone for behaving against the stereotype
  4. Sexualisation – depicting individuals in a highly sexualised manner
  5. Objectification - portraying individuals in a manner that focuses on their body or body parts
  6. Body image - showing an unhealthy body image.

Why is gender stereotyping in ads bad?

Previous research has repeatedly illustrated the negative effects of gender stereotyping. One of the pervasive ways in which gender stereotypes can affect individuals is through stereotype threat, where the fear of behaving in a manner that would confirm negative stereotypes of their group actually causes individuals to underperform.

For instance, a subtle suggestion that females are bad at maths caused women to underperform in difficult maths tests compared to men. Similarly, when told that financial decision-making skills were diagnostic of their gender, women made less risky decisions and were more afraid of monetary losses compared men. These effects of negative gender stereotypes extend to a wide variety of domains from chess performance (eg female players underperformed when faced with a male opponent), to entrepreneurship (eg men had higher entrepreneurial intentions when told entrepreneurs were predominantly male), and even to consumer decisions (eg purchasing financial services, or purchasing automobiles and getting repairs – belonging to a marketplace context in which women might be stereotyped). Given the insidiousness of negative gender stereotypes:

“Gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us.[…] It’s in the interest of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.

 – Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA

What’s been done so far?

As adverts often reflect society’s culture and norms, it is imperative to address the potential for harm arising from the use of gender stereotypes in ads.

<iframe width="560" height="315" title=” Salvo Detergent Commercial From The Early 70's “ src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gOpCJ0ZXpZo" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Salvo Detergent Commercial From The Early 70's

With scripts for detergent adverts including lines such as “no one takes better care of her husband”, we can thankfully say the days of 1970’s adverts are firmly over, however there’s still plenty of work to be done. Some activists have taken to directly reversing the gendered roles seen in their previous advertisements, for example the Kenwood Chef poster with the original tag line “The Chef does everything but cook - that’s what wives are for!”.

Even before the ban was passed, Unilever teamed up with Facebook, Mars, and United Nations Women to create the ‘Unstereotype Alliance’ in 2017 to use “the power of advertising to help shape perceptions that reflect realistic, non-biased portrays of men and women”. The firm, behind 400 brands from Knorr to Dove soap, has pledged to remove sexist stereotypes from its own ads. Similarly, Channel 4 offered £1 million in free airtime in a contest for positive gender ads in May 2018.

Despite these advances, negative gender stereotypes are still to be encountered in advertising. For instance, Dolce & Gabbana has repeatedly used overt sexualisation in their adverts despite being banned in several countries on multiple occasions. The advert showed a woman pinned to the ground while other men looked on was banned from Italian and Spanish publications for suggesting gang rape.

So, what should advertisers do?

Whilst overt sexualisation in the Dolce & Gabbana advert is a clear use of negative gender stereotypes, things are often more nuanced.  In January 2019, a Gillette advert referencing the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity evoked backlash online. The advert echoes its famous slogan “Is this the best a man can get?” while depicting negative gender stereotypes of men harassing women and fighting, saying “Boys will be boys”.  It was followed with more positive depictions of men such as stepping in to prevent harassment and being good fathers. Some praised the message of the advert, but others claimed that the brand alienated its target audience and threatened to boycott the brand.

<iframe width="560" height="315" title=”We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film)” src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/koPmuEyP3a0" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film)

Even without a ban, the Gillette advert highlights the importance of addressing gender issues in a sensitive manner in order to reflect modern values without alienating its customers.

One thing is clear, advertising needs to be more creative and reflect a more diverse view of gender. Society has shifted away from the traditional binary understanding of gender with Emma Watson winning MTV’s first gender-neutral acting award, Zara’s and many other brands’ ungendered clothing collection, and more gender-neutral bathrooms in places such as restaurants and shopping centres.

Since 2015, more companies are embracing gender fluidity, focusing on their consumers without focusing on their gender. Society is starting to believe that gender is no longer a category we want to takes sides on, “but a spectrum of need states and emotions that we can shift between”. Ultimately, successful adverts speak to its customers, regardless of gender.

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