Let's Talk Tropes : Improving Our Approach to Gender in Advertising

Sallie Bale • 25th Jun 2019

As of June 14th there are now new guidelines that all advertisers have to adhere to regarding the portrayal of men and women, girls and boys. After a rigorous analysis of current advertising, the complaints they receive, focus groups, UK and EU law and the social and economic context, the ASA produced a report on how gender is being used in advertising.

Whilst the report found that the ASA was approaching sexualisation, objectification and body image in the right way (i.e. regulation and policing of the rules is not too lax and not too harsh), they weren’t quite getting it right when it came to gender stereotypes.

The problem was that, in some instances, the way gender has been used in advertising generates a negative impact on the way we see ourselves, and they way others see us. It’s probably no big news to the more ‘woke’ amongst our readers but gender can and has be used in a way that limits the role that any given sex plays in society. 

“Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” – ASA

One caveat that I will highlight here is that it appears that where the ASA refers to gender, they are using it in a binary sense. They don’t seem to have tackled any issues relating to trans or non-binary gender. Perhaps that’s a follow up report. Or perhaps there weren’t enough instances of non-binary people in advertising to draw any conclusions from.

Recently, I attended an Advertising Standards Authority Scotland event, scheduled with the sole purpose of giving a forum for discussion to these new guidelines. The event was Chaired by Guy Parker, chief executive, ASA with keynote from Minister for Equalities and Older People, Christina McKelvie MSP, and a panel discussion with Rachel Adamson, director, Zero Tolerance, Brian Coane, partner, Leith Agency & Scottish Chair of the Advertising Association and Nita Patel, committee member and NED, ASA.

The contribution that I keep coming back to is from Rachel. She really bought the issue home:

“There is a direct correlation between gender stereotypes and violence against women.”

People who have a stronger belief in the stereotyped view of the roles genders play in society are more likely to commit or turn a blind eye to acts of violence against women.


Clearly, that’s a responsibility that we as advertisers have to take seriously. Advertising is all about influence. And we must remember that we may be influencing people in ways that we don’t intend. We might think that by using a woman as a the sole bearer of the housework, we’re identifying with women who run the house. In reality however, we’re perpetuating the myth that women shouldbe the sole bearer of housework.

This bought the conversation around to responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to change the status quo? Well, everybody’s of course. Everyone who touches that advert.

In a 2004 study by Drumwright & Murphy, “How advertising practitioners view ethics”, it was found that ethics weren’t an issue that was on the radar for most practitioners. We’re not even on the look out for any unintended negative consequences of our work. Ouch.

“They exhibited “moral myopia,” a distortion of moral vision that prevents moral issues from coming into focus, and “moral muteness,” meaning that they rarely talk about ethical issues. We find that the reasons for moral muteness and moral myopia are categorizable. There were, however, “seeing/talking” advertising practitioners who demonstrated “moral imagination” when responding to ethical problems.”

Drum & Murphy, Journal of Advertising, Summer 2004, Vol. 33, Issue 2, p7-24

So what can we do? Look up from our own work and see the vast array of people that will view it. Speak up when we think something is amiss. Let’s not just bury our collective heads in the sand.

During the panel discussion, Brian encouraged us all to start talking more. Kick off the conversation; about the work, about our agency structures, about who we’re hiring, about the brands we’re willing to work with.

So often we’re working at such a pace, that things can slip through the net. You’ve got an urgent photoshoot for a brand that’s simply screaming at you from your schedule, and you can only get three pretty blonde girls for your advert? Not a good enough excuse any more. Let’s all step it up a notch or ten. I dare you.

Something I’m really interested in is whether advertising reflects or creates culture. And the more and more I look into it the answer is absolutely both. It has to reflect culture to resonate with the target audience. But to be truly effective it must build culture; to differentiate itself, to be aspirational, to be pervasive. And that’s a big responsibility. Use it wisely, friends.

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