Many of us are familiar with the saying “sex sells”, and for a long time, that has been true of the advertising industry. Women’s bodies being used as literal objects to sell products, services, and concepts. More recently, we have see a major shift in the way women are being portrayed, and we can point to a handful of major brands responsible for this: Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, and Always’ “Like A Girl” message are helping to flip the script.
Clearly their messages of female empowerment, rather than female objectification or sexualization, are striking a chord throughout the industry because many brands are following suit. Over in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority have taken notice of what is happening and have made a major decision.
They have vowed to take a tougher stance on gender stereotypes in advertising, saying it is harmful to society. The ASA recently published a report titled “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm” to explain their decision.
“Our new report provides an evidence-based case for stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which might be harmful to people, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes,” it states on the website.
The regulatory body already bans ads in the UK for excessive sexualization and promoting unhealthy body image ideals, according to Adage.com, but the added focus on gender stereotypes will take this to the next level. Advertising like the controversial Protein World “Beach Body Ready” ads plastered throughout public transport areas were widely panned, on both sides of the coin, after they were banned by the ASA, not for its sexist message but because of the potentially misleading statements they were making about their product.
The new rules will come into effect in 2018 and some advertising industry execs see this as a positive as they recognize the role they play in shaping culture and perspectives, especially in youth.
“Awareness should run as a thread through the process of creating communications. We can’t, as agencies, talk about contributing to culture and then take a step back from our responsibilities. We shape minds and attitudes and opinions, and we must not confirm negative ones,” said Juliet Haygarth, CEO of London agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay.
The CEO of the ASA said the advertising industry may only be one facet that propagates gender stereotyping, but they want to do their part in helping eliminate them.
“Tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole,” said Guy Parker.
It’s not just about playing a pivotal role in culture, it seems that industry executives and governing bodies are recognizing the shift, thanks to the “femvertising” trend. Facebook IQ released data from research they recently conducted which found consumers are more likely these days to gravitate toward brands and products that promote an empowering message.
A survey of over 1500 in the US saw 48% of respondents claim they felt more loyal to a brand which promoted gender equality, and 51% of women (45% of men) were more likely to shop from it. The research also focused on advertising on the social media platform specifically, but it is worth the wider advertising industry taking note of as more and more brands are looking to increase their presence on the internet, including Facebook.
The report also found women were 1.85 times more likely to be interested in watching a movie if the trailer featured a woman dressed as a firefighter versus a woman dressed in revealing clothing, and 75% of the women surveyed believe that the most important thing brands can do to promote gender equality is to stop portraying women as sex symbols. When it comes to following trends, getting into the female empowerment game is good business, it seems.
Closer to home in the US, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media teamed up with J. Walter Thompson New York, Google and University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering teamed up to examine the ways advertising affects depictions we see in film and other forms of media.
“Gender Bias in Advertising” found women consistently accounted for only about one third of all characters in commercials, across all years tested. In 2006, 33.9% of characters were women. Ten years later, the figure had barely budged, reaching only 36.9%.
“We assumed that in advertising, given that women dominate purchasing, that commercials would have much greater female representation. To find out the reverse was quite surprising,” said Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute.
Drawing on their extensive research regarding gender inequality in Hollywood, the Institute and the rest of the research team saw how the lack of women in speaking roles, with full agency and complexity, contributed easily to sexualization and objectification. They recommended creating scripts and concepts that put women in positions of power and autonomy where they are not just props. Also having more women in executive and decision-making positions in advertising agencies would help to advance gender equality in commercials.
“We now know that simply adding women to scripts will not solve gender inequality in entertainment media. We have to write female characters with more screen time, more speaking time, more prominence in the storyline, with more personal agency, and without objectifying them,” said Caroline Heldman, research adviser to the Geena Davis Institute and associate professor in the politics department at Occidental College.
Seeing the move away from the objectification of women in advertising is undoubtedly exciting. It’s not about decrying any depiction of sex or sexuality, it is about a powerful and impactful industry making a conscious decision not to use women’s bodies as mere tools. If brands like Always, Dove, Pantene, etc can prove female empowerment works as a way to sell a message, others should be able to follow suit.