Does stereotypical marketing arise from a stereotypical industry?

We investigate rising consciousness of stereotypes in marketing campaigns today and ask how brands and agencies should be considering them

In February this year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority banned two television commercials. While far from being the first ads to ever be banned, they were the first found to violate new rules prohibiting the depiction of men and women in gender-stereotypical activities.

In the case of an ad for Mondelez’ Philadelphia cream cheese, offence arose from portraying men as ineffective child carers, while a Volkswagen ad depicted women in passive stereotypical roles, compared to the presentation of men in more active scenarios.

While neither commercial was aired in Australia (and hence never came before local regulators for scrutiny), the ban fuelled discussion on the use of stereotypes in marketing and how standards have changed. It also brought back into focus the question of whether marketing in Australia today is more reflective of the composition and biases of the teams who create and approve it, rather than representing the reality of Australian society. Or more plainly, whether the faces a consumer sees in Australian advertising represent those they might see on their morning train ride.

Decisions regarding the appropriateness of advertising in Australia are adjudicated by Ad Standards, which regularly surveys the opinions of Australians to detect changing sentiments.

Its chief executive officer, Fiona Jolly, says significant change has been taken place in Australian advertising, especially regarding the depiction of women. She notes complaints under Section 2.1 of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics, which relates to discrimination and vilification, have fallen from between historical levels of 15 per cent to 25 per cent down of total complaints, down to 8.6 per cent last year.

“Using a scantily clad woman in ads as an ornament is now something you just wouldn’t be able to get away with,” Jolly tells CMO. “The test that we have hasn’t changed is that you can use stereotypes but not in a negative way.”

While the Mondelez ad did not undergo examination in Australia, it nonetheless represents a theme Jolly says is becoming a larger source of complaints.

“One of the complaints we get more of than we are used to is ‘why are men being depicted as hopeless in terms of multitasking or looking after the family’,” Jolly says. “And our panel has said to advertisers to not get around one problem by picking on the other gender.”

Positive over negative

That position is also supported by the director of policy and regulatory affairs at the AANA, Megan McEwin.

“We are all about stopping negative stereotypes,” she says. “We don’t mind positive ones. And you’ve got to be careful not to eliminate the use of humour in advertising.”

For Paul Fishlock, former creative director at The Campaign Palace and now founder and principal at Behaviour Change Partners, advertisers have a strong reason for using stereotypes.

“In a TV ad you’ve got 30 seconds,” he says. “You absolutely have to ‘shorthand’ what you are setting up, and stereotypes are a very useful tool for doing that. But at the same time, if you are reinforcing negative or lazy stereotypes, that is not very helpful.”

Whereas once the punishment for offending against social norms might have been to have an ad pulled by the regulator, a much worse fate awaits offenders today.

“Social media backlash happens incredibly quickly,” Fishlock says. “You pay the price much more publicly than in the past when it would be a written letter to some advertising standards authority.”

Up next: The impact of gender balance and diversity in the workplace, plus content stereotypes - can you still get away with them?

Balance in the workforce

While advertisers are being more careful, that doesn’t mean they are always getting things right.

In 2015, ad agency, Leo Burnett, issued an announcement celebrating five new creative hires – all of whom were male. The announcement caused a storm and led the company to issue a further statement clarifying 45 per cent of its leadership was female.

The whole event underlined the question of whether unconscious bias might be responsible for the portrayal of gender roles in advertising.

According to founder and psychologist at Thinkerbell, Adam Ferrier, in days past it was the traditionally high proportion of white male executives in key roles that led to creative output that would never fly today.

“Much of the sexist, racist stuff heralded as fantastic advertising back in the day was collective unconscious bias at work, where most people didn’t see an issue with it,” he claims. “Where there would have been a few people who really felt an issue with it, their dissenting opinion would have been explained away, whereas now it is absolutely listened to.”

Most agencies have made an effort to redress gender balance in their teams, and executive creative director at M&C Saatchi Melbourne, Emma Hill, has noted an increase in the number of women in creative roles over her 20+ year career. But she remains one of the small proportion of women in a senior creative role in Australia today.

“What I have noticed is more junior female creatives coming through,” Hill says. “So a lot of change may be on the way. It’s going to be how adaptable and flexible agencies are prepared to be in what they offer talented women through their journey - having kids, taking time away, wanting to come back slowly - that will determine whether creative women remain in positions and work their way up into leadership roles”. 

Bringing more women into the industry might solve part of the problem, but there is no guarantee they will stay. CEO of strategic and creative agency LOUD communications, Lorraine Jokovic, says she has seen too many talented women leave the industry – something that prompted her to take the role of chair of The Communications Council’s Diversity and Inclusion Group.

“It’s a significant drain on our talent pool and ultimately it impacts the quality of work only a diverse workforce can deliver,” Jokovic says. “As an industry that is supposed to provide cultural leadership, I don’t believe we are credible if we don’t hold a mirror to society. I was disappointed we were being left behind by other sectors in terms of addressing diversity and wanted to contribute to creating the change needed.”

Jokovic says the Comms Council group is providing practical tools to ensure a gender balanced workforce and to foster inclusion. She has been buoyed by supporting work of trade media in creating forums, events and awards for women in advertising and diversity as a whole.

“There are numerous research reports that clearly show diversity within organisations improves productivity, quality and outcomes,” Jokovic says. “It’s a major contributor to the future prosperity of our industry. Our clients are beginning to demand it and it’s a need we must meet.”

It was the desire to see more women in creative teams that saw the convenors of the Comms Council’s Award School remove all names from material that would-be students were putting forward. Comms Council CEO, Tony Hale, says this immediately led to changes in graduate intake.

“If you went back 2012, only about 36 per cent of applications and about 30 per cent of successful applicants were female,” Hale says. “For the last three years, Award School applications and successful applications have sat pretty well at 50/50.”

While eliminating unconscious bias might seem to be the right thing to do, Hale says ultimately clients will benefit too.

“We have spent a lot of time on effectiveness and what generates the most effective marketing campaigns,” he continues. “If you have a multitude of different perspectives applied around creativity you are going to get a better solution. Advertising is a competitive industry, and there are smart agencies and smart clients who see diversity as a competitive advantage.”

Content stereotypical

But when it comes to creative content itself, the heavy reliance on stereotypes can be a difficult habit for clients to let go of. Hill notes throughout her career, she has had clients push back against the portrayal of men and women in non-traditional roles.

“I have been aware of that whole stereotypical portrayal of women for a long time now, and have really tried to avoid it, but we still seem to be the only ones who do the washing up,” Hill says. “But sometimes in some work where you do put men into female situations you often get noted for that as well and told ‘your strategy is showing’.”

As a result, she counsels clients to take a more progressive approach. “Clients are up for it,” Hill says.

“The clients we have are all being run by people who have a real appetite for change and are very contemporary in terms of how they see their brands and who is interacting with them.”

Gender is not the only aspect of diversity warranting attention in Australian marketing - a lesson Australian schools might still need to learn. Trevor McCandless spent a number of years analysing marketing materials from 31 government and independent schools for his PhD thesis, and noted they uniformly gave prominence to light skinned students, regardless of the composition of the student body.

“The white person is always in sharp focus and any other skin tone is blurred,” McCandless says.

In instances where darker skinned students were shown, it was generally in relation to discussions of disadvantage.

The desire to shine a light on ethnic diversity has also been a key motivator for Ant Melder, cofounder and creative partner at Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder. Melder started his career in advertising in London 27 years ago and noted at the time the industry was dominated by white, middle class males – very different to his Anglo-Indian Bangladeshi background.

“When I started, I was a bit of an odd man out, there weren’t really any other ethnicities, or even female creatives or creative leaders either,” Melder says. “It makes it hard for you to envision success when you don’t see role models that are like you.”

It was a factor he also noted when he relocated to Australia seven years ago. In April, Melder launched the Brown Riot podcast to shine a light on industry leaders from diverse backgrounds

Melder says the response has been overwhelmingly positive and hopes it will help to inspire a generation of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to join the industry. But whether changes in the composition of creative teams leads to a change in the faces seen advertising Australia’s brands remains to be seen.

“Whether it is consciously or subconsciously, the work that gets made is a reflection of the subconscious of the creatives behind the work, and the marketers that buy that work that are involved in the casting decisions,” Melder says. “That is changing, but I wish it would change more quickly, because when you see pieces of work that are a bit more representative, they really do stand out. I think smart creatives and smart marketers are making the most of that.

“We are still in a world where for house cleaning products a certain type of person will be cast for those roles. But the ‘win’ is the fact I am having different kinds of conversations with CMOs, and CMOs are starting to embrace this way of doing things.

“The very best marketing is the kind of work that can create culture, not just follow culture.”

Pushing diversity

It is an idea being brought to life by Ogilvy Australia, who’s creative team of Ava Frawley and Jasmine Subrata won a contest in 2017 organised by The Glue Society and D&AD that asked them to push the boundaries of diversity. The result is ‘Changing the Face’, which in November unveiled a composite image made from the faces of 62 executive creative directors and chief creative officer from around Australia. It was the face of a white male.

“When we came up with the idea, there were no female ECDs, so we wanted to reflect the state of the industry at that point in time,” says Frawley. “We looked around and noticed a lot of agencies are trying hard to increase diversity, but they’re all doing their own thing.”

“The power of this campaign is that it encourages us to work together, making our strengths and weaknesses transparent, so together we can change the face of advertising,” adds Subrata.

The campaign is now encouraging creative teams to upload their personnel data to create a representation of their own diversity, which will be visualised as a unique face and published in March 2020.

According to Ogilvy Australia creative director, Jenny Mak, the exercise will not only provide the industry with a snapshot of how diverse it is, but will give each agency a way to track their progress year-on-year.

“Ultimately, this idea is about making positive change in the way the industry hires and promotes staff,” Mak says. “Hopefully it will lead to creating a more diverse workforce across all facets of diversity, not limited to gender. Currently this is an Australian initiative, but the ultimate ambition would be for the initiative to be used on a global scale, across multiple industries to create a more diverse workforce worldwide.”

While societal standards have come a long way in the last 40 years, there is a high likelihood they will continue to evolve further, with Fishlock having noted changing attitude towards the portrayal of elderly Australians

“It is society’s last acceptable form of prejudice,” he says. “When we look at progress that has been made in terms of discrimination on sexual preference and gender and race and disability, there is still a long, long way to go on every single one of them. We are only just bringing ageism up to the starting line.”

Ferrier believes other social issues will also move from the edge to the centre.

“Feminists were seen as a fringe stance back in the day,” he says. “Animal rights has not played out yet in terms of becoming a mainstream issue. It is now seen as being a fringe stance to be a vegan. But I wonder if veganism is the next thing to play out and become a mainstream concept.”

So while it is possible to look back on the creative output of 40 years ago and cringe, there is no guarantee the work of today won’t be viewed with similar sentiment 40 years from now.

Or as Ferrier asks: “What am I doing today that my kids will look upon with absolute horror and shame?”

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