The Advertising Standards Authority’s recent ban on the use of harmful stereotypes in advertising is a positive change. The images we see in all forms of popular culture have the ability to inspire us to fulfil our potential or constrain us.
And yet, it will be challenging for advertisers to get this right. Advertising often uses shortcuts to get its messages across succinctly, and the use of stereotypes will remain enticing, albeit brands will be obliged to avoid harmful ones.
Already we are starting to see the effects; this year’s Boots summer commercial actively references the body-shaming Protein World ad that provoked the ASA to rethink its code two years ago, instead portraying its audience more realistically getting ready for their summer holidays.
For the last couple of years, I have co-led our marketing initiative in Diageo on gender. It has been part of an organisation-wide effort to create a more inclusive business.
Mars’s three-point strategy to improve gender equality in its advertising
You can see this change in our board and our executive committee, and now almost half our marketing leaders across the world are women. We’ve invested in creating fair parental leave giving men and women 26 weeks paid leave in the UK following the birth or adoption of a child.
The first thing I learned in doing this work was that change is hard to achieve despite our best intentions. Even Cannes Lions had to explicitly change its judging criteria after it realised there had been no discernible change in the portrayal of women in its winners in over a decade.
We all get tripped up by our cultural conditioning. Harvard University estimates that 75% of us have some kind of gender bias, and this of course is true for women and men. There are similar findings for other biases – including ethnicity and sexuality.
The first thing I learned in doing this work was that change is hard to achieve despite our best intentions.
As well as change being the right thing to do, the business case stacks up. Depending on the data source, women account for 80% of all purchasing decisions, and films with strong female protagonists gross an additional $10m on average at the box office. Adverts with strong portrayal of women increase purchase intent by 35 points, according to the Advertising Benchmark Index.
So how do we overcome our bias? Based on cultural understanding of how women are portrayed in popular culture including film, television, print, politics, and advertising, we developed a framework to help our marketers and their agency partners identify where bias is creeping in. The framework is simple, but applying it is nuanced because how we see things differ depending on our cultural context.
There are four elements. Firstly, we ask people to think about ‘representation’. This is not just a numbers game in ensuring women are represented equally across a body of work, but also that we see a broad range of different types.
We also think about ‘perspective’. Even when women are present, it is easy for them to be seen through a male gaze. We provoke our marketers to think about whose perspective the action is seen from and, ideally, we should be seeing things through the eyes of the main character. It helps to think about who is behind the camera and we are actively using more diverse directors.
‘Agency’ is about ensuring the people you see in our adverts are in control of their lives and how they interact with the products shown. They should never appear as metaphors for product or packaging, inviting the audience to consume them.
And finally we ask people to think about ‘character’. We should depict real and rounded people with a narrative that goes beyond their gender.
In tackling this, collaboration can really help. We’re members of the #UnstereotypeAlliance and have developed an industry toolkit with Unilever to tackle stereotypes in communications. We also signed up to Free the Bid, ensuring women get the chance to bid to direct work, and have supported the Creative Equals scheme Creative Comeback, supporting female talent returning to the industry.
Unilever pushes for more ‘progressive’ portrayals of people in advertising
We’ve focused primarily on gender as it is the area most in need of reform, but the criteria can also be applied to how men are presented, to age, sexuality, and ethnicity. It’s difficult and we know we’ll continue to make mistakes. The work done by brands like Maltesers, Dove and Channel 4 has inspired us, and with the ASA regulations we can look forward to an advertising environment where people of all kinds are positively portrayed.
Andrew Geoghegan is global head of consumer media planning at Diageo and heads up its customer marketing centre of excellence.