When sex doesn't sell

07 Aug 2017  |  Zoe Harris 
When sex doesn't sell

Advertising might have come a long way since the 1950s, but brands today are still guilty of lazy gender stereotyping, writes Trinity Mirror's Zoe Harris

How many times did you land yourself in hot water for not ‘store testing’ for coffee this week? Or perhaps you’re just heaving a sigh of relief that once again you’ve made it to the office in your super safe Mini without somehow wrapping yourself round a lamppost.

It’s hard to believe, but ads featuring husbands spanking their wives, offering up a new Hoover for Christmas or standing with one foot delicately balanced on their spouse’s head were what passed for the best of Madison Avenue back in the day.

These ads hark back to real olden times, belonging - if they can ever really be excused - to my parents’ parents’ era and less enlightened times.

But then I think to the iconic ads of my formative years, years marked by the first female Prime Minister, Greenham Common and Germain Greer and two zingy jingles spring to mind.

The melodic “For hands that do dishes that feel soft as your face...” segues neatly into the jazzier “I wish they all could be Caledonian Girls”, both accompanied by beatifically smiling women in sensible midi skirts and just a dash of coral lippy.

Either I got to be grateful that being chained to the sink would leave me pretty for my hubby or I could aspire to the high grooming standards of 80s trolley dollies (who certainly weren’t being advertised on the strength of their stoicism in the face of real airborne peril, unless it involved running out of ice and a slice).

Onwards to 2017 and with a goodly clutch of female premiers scattered around the globe, a woman at the helm of the IMF, a few more banks and FTSE 100 businesses, ads have got to have got the hang of this gender equality thing?

Well, I could damn it with faint praise and say, it’s getting better. Ish.

We have Thomas Cook making a point of featuring both a single father and a (male) same sex couple in its ads. Tesco put Ben Miller bickering companionably with wife Ruth Jones at the checkout and Always, while being restrained by its very product to advertising to women by women, gained great kudos with its #LikeaGirl campaign.

But still ads today fall easily into lazy gender stereotyping. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Vanish head right to the ‘two women in a kitchen’ bucket of creative ideas but for the most part it’s women mopping up after the muddy dog/clumsy toddler/messy teen while the men ineptly push a lawnmower about.

(I’m not missing the irony that one of the best subversions of the gender stereotype on that front has been the desperate housewives mowing the lawn ident on the ad-free BBC.)

The ASA’s new report Depictions, Perceptions and Harm forms the basis of the association’s call for stronger regulation around negative stereotypes in advertising. It shows that despite great strides towards equality, the communications industry still has a way to go.

Before there are cries that the Feminazis have taken over, gender stereotyping swings both ways. While the ASA (and 50% of the UK population) have had enough of women being the only ones who know where the hoover lives, the proposed regulation is aimed at men too.

It considers ‘problematic’ any ads that suggest boys should be ridiculed for doing things that are considered girly (or vice versa). Equally, the ASA is not up for ads that show men being typically cack-handed at anything parental or domestic.

That’s not to say the creatives have to waste hours hand-wringing over whether or not they’ve featured a precise 50/50 split between men and women over mop-spillage time. In fact, if research proves - as it has done - that women tend to do more cleaning than men, it’s fine to have women cleaning. It happens.

What’s less fine is to imply that grime free carpets are her sole reason for living, or that domestic armageddon would ensue if a man took over the dusting whenever she put her feet up to watch Game of Thrones.

The ASA has a role to guide and remind the industry of its responsibilities but it is up to the ad industry as a whole to make sure it accurately represents the weft and warp of society. If only because they’ll be doing their clients a disservice otherwise.

So let’s call out those that are re-enforcing stereotypes in creative reviews. Let’s find new ways to represent the wide mix of families now not only tolerated and accepted but included and embraced in society as a whole, and think about how we bring them to life in the briefs that we write.

Let’s remember that the ads we make are observed and soaked up by a generation of children who do not need to grow up with the stereotypes that we did. And let’s use our influence not only to reflect but to challenge and champion true equality.

Advertising is at the heart of popular culture. We can be one step ahead of society rather than one step behind. We can bring people with us. And being one stop ahead can win legions of fans as this US campaign for Campbell's has demonstrated with their brilliant social responses to complaints about gay dads featured in their ads.

Lazy stereotyping may seem fun, pandering to the odd cliché harmless. It might not even upset that many people. But your customers can do something worse than get upset. They can just walk away.


Zoe Harris is group marketing director and head of invention at Trinity Mirror

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