As a young girl growing up on the Jersey Shore, I, like most other girls, played with Barbie. My Barbie was climbing Everest, starting companies and traveling through time and space, mostly leaving Ken at home. My now-husband, growing up across the pond in Scotland, was climbing on Terex trucks, wearing a hard hat and building with Legos. When asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, my goal was to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader while pursuing a degree in Chemistry. My husband’s dream was to be a lorry driver who lived in a skyscraper overlooking the Forth Bridge. Today, my husband is an Engineer for BP, while I am a Senior Strategist in the world of marketing.
The way boys and girls decide what and who they want to be when they grow up is down to numerous factors, but what they see on TV or online can be a powerful influence. Advertising, if it isn’t careful, can perpetuate gender stereotypes, with detrimental effects on self-esteem. In this world of always-on media, the pressures are mounting for girls and boys as they feel the need to define their ‘brand’ young, and base their worth on ‘likes’ or ‘shares’.
On July 18, the ASA released a paper called ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm’ meant to analyse the effect of gender stereotypes in advertising. Importantly, the report recognises that gender stereotypes “do not exist in isolation from each other. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ stereotypes can reinforce each other – if men are strong and aggressive, women must be weak and passive…and if women are emotional, men are stoic.” These binary assumptions about skills and characteristics of ‘girls’ or ‘boys’, ‘men’ or ‘women’, can lead to dangerous assumptions of what each sex is capable of.
It is about time the advertising industry took a good, hard look at what the images it depicts say not only about the brands they represent, but also about how we make sense of the world. There is no reason a child, teenager, or adult should accept an ad that puts people into boxes. Empowerment in advertising is breaking the mould, and being recognised for its fearless dedication to embracing all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities and orientations. Consider Always’s ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, or H&M’s ‘She’s a Lady’. Both ads forced us, as viewers, to adjust our own perceptions. Good advertising should break down stereotypes and fairly represent all people, regardless of gender.
The truth is that brands need to address people as humans. Brands should talk to consumers on a peer-to-peer level, understanding that the relationships we form with brands are similar to the relationships we enjoy in our everyday. There is just as much reason for a young girl to see Lego as a Best Friend as there is for a young boy to see Ken as one. And, as much as there is a push for equality in the depictions of gender in advertising, there is an additional responsibility we have as marketers to segment audiences by needs rather than sex. We deserve a world where young girls are encouraged to get messy as they explore, and one where fathers are just as well-versed in laundry detergent as their domestic partners.
So what can we hope for from this ASA report? I, personally, hope it will drive a better understanding of the power of advertising and media to influence perceptions of the sexes. I hope to see and be a part of more campaigns that strike out against stereotypes and begin to help generations of girls and boys imagine a different type of future where they can truly do, and be whatever they want.
Find out more about how we endeavour to talk to people as humans and download our whitepaper on the 14 new brand relationships.