No more excuses: how research can help confront sexism in advertising

marchIt was International Women’s Day last week – you probably noticed. Our Facebook newsfeeds were full of photos of friends’ mums from the 60s, quotes from feminist heroes and plenty of flexed bicep emojis.

In the media, we saw shocking reminders of the scale of the challenge: there’s still a long way to go until we reach gender parity – and with Trump in the White House, the battle has ramped up. Fourth wave feminism is known (and criticised) for its ‘slacktivism’ but so far in 2017 we appear to be witnessing a rise in genuine activism: women across the world are embracing those ‘unfeminine’ impulses to get angry, be difficult and take up space.

This theme is being reflected in advertising. Acknowledging a history of colluding in female oppression and responding to a consumer call for change, many brands are confronting gender stereotypes in a powerful way. Campaigns like This Girl Can, Like a Girl and Beauty for All are taking on an overtly activist role. Providing confidence mentorship, engaging community and challenging gender narratives, these campaigns are smashing stereotypes on the head.

They’re not just doing it out of a sense of social justice. They’ve performed incredibly well commercially. It’s not just responsible to confront sexism – it pays.

So why are these brands considered so brave and disruptive? It’s because so much advertising is still rooted in outdated gender codes. A recent Unilever study found that across a range of 1,000 current ads, 3% of women were depicted in leadership roles, 2% were portrayed as intelligent and 1% as funny. So it’s not surprising that 40% of women don’t relate to women see in commercials. To add another statistic, we need more than 3% of commercial directors to be women.They’re not just doing it out of a sense of social justice. They’ve performed incredibly well commercially. It’s not just responsible to confront sexism – it pays.

So why are these brands considered so brave and disruptive? It’s because so much advertising is still rooted in outdated gender codes. A recent Unilever study found that across a range of 1,000 current ads, 3% of women were depicted in leadership roles, 2% were portrayed as intelligent and 1% as funny. So it’s not surprising that 40% of women don’t relate to women see in commercials. To add another statistic, we need more than 3% of commercial directors to be women.

But maybe there’s a more nuanced explanation. Anthropology and the concept of silos explain how consumers might – subconsciously – help advertisers perpetuate sexist tropes.

In ‘The Silo Effect’ Gillian Tett explores how corporate silos stem from a human tendency to categorise. We make sense of the world by putting things into boxes. These become cultural norms so woven into our lives that we don’t question – or even notice them. She asks:

“Why do any human beings accept the classification systems they inherit from their surroundings, especially when these social norms are potentially damaging?”

Women in ads might not reflect the lives that many viewers live or aspire to today – but they are incredibly familiar. It’s when brands bust out of these cultural silos that we notice what they are standing up against. At best it forces us to question not just the way we are advertised to but how we see ourselves.

As researchers we see the world through an anthropological lens: we’re here to question cultural patterns and consumer perspectives. But when we get involved in creative development and ad testing, research should work harder to understand how brands can make less conventional but deeper connections with women. We believe in asking more challenging questions, putting ideas and executions through a stronger testing process. A Bechdel test for advertising, if you like.

We are living through a consciousness-raising moment in history. Our political backdrop – combined with a very visible feminist movement – is forcing more women to question more of what they see happening around them. There’s never been a more pressing time to change the way we advertise to women – and as researchers we can help make sure this is done in way that truly engages and challenges the consumer.

By Natalie.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements