Gender and the business of advertising

A Mintel study looks into the gender views of consumers from Thailand, Indonesia and Australia to see how these relate to their perception of ads.

Stuck in the past? The study questions whether gender portrayals in advertising match the modern reality
Stuck in the past? The study questions whether gender portrayals in advertising match the modern reality

One of the most popular ads in Thailand in 2014 was a two-minute spot called ‘The Power of Love’ by telco Dtac and Y&R. Widely praised for the way it showed that human touch cannot be replaced by technology, the ad dispensed helpful parenting tips for young fathers left alone with their newborns. All fine — except that childcare is a shared responsibility, and this ad was arguably perpetuating the age-old ‘incompetent dad’ stereotype.

Yet Thai consumers are more likely than their counterparts in Indonesia and Australia to show approval for the way their genders are represented in advertising, according to a recent Mintel study of 3,900 people carried out by Lightspeed. Among the Thai respondents surveyed, 57 percent of women and 46 percent of men agreed that their genders are accurately represented in advertising. Aussie consumers, by comparison, are the most disgruntled, with only 26 percent of women and 37 percent of men satisfied.

The study also found that respondents’ perceptions of gender in advertising are not entirely straightforward. While both sexes in Thailand felt strongly about gender equality and glass ceiling issues in the workplace, for instance, they were okay with the portrayal of their genders in advertising. It would therefore be an oversimplification to assume that Thailand’s adland is indeed more gender progressive than the other two markets based on these results alone.

Thailand’s ambivalence towards endorsement

What can be inferred from the study, and what carries further implication for brands, is that Thai consumers find advertisements to be unrelatable, says Delon Wang, manager of trends, APAC, Mintel. While a healthy proportion of Thai consumers said they pay attention to advertising (55 percent of men and 58 percent of women), Wang is surprised by the low percentage of Thai respondents of both sexes who said they became self conscious of their looks following influence by models (37 percent) and celebrities (38 percent). 

“The attention towards advertising versus the effect of advertising represents a rather ambivalent attitude towards endorsements and celebrity portrayal. This brings attention to the possibility that ordinary consumers do not see themselves on a comparable level with models and celebrities used in advertising and are thus unlikely to be influenced, especially metropolitan Thai consumers within the 18-24 age range,” says Wang.

Meanwhile, he suggests, the positive sentiment of Thai consumers towards gender representation in advertising could imply that gender roles are very much accepted within Thai society and the portrayal of this in ads, and in the media by extension, is indeed accurate.  Shannon Kalayanamitr, co-founder and former chief marketing officer of Orami, a female-focused ecommerce platform in Thailand, says that Thai society is more conservative than it appears to be. “To the outside world, we are very open because we have the LGBTQ community…drag queens and all of that. But Thailand has a patriarchial heritage… Prior to today, the society was very male dominated in many ways and even the language was structured for male usage,” says Kalayanamitr.

Shannon Kalayanamitr

It used to be common for women to be cast in one-dimensional roles in popular culture, too, continues Kalayanamitr, especially in soap operas where they were either the pretty girl, the mistress or the bad girl. Fortunately, such portrayals have been toned down in recent years. “In terms of advertising and branding, I think it is starting to get not just politically correct, but a little bit more targeted because brands realise that women hold the purchasing power in the family,” says Kalayanamitr.

Gender movement Down Under

Of the three countries surveyed, Australia ranks ahead of Thailand in the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, followed by Indonesia. However, both Australia and Thailand have slipped 10 and 11 places respectively on the index compared to last year, while Indonesia has moved up four spots.

Unlike in Thailand, Mintel’s Wang says the correlation of consumer sentiment and perceptions towards gender portrayal in advertising in Australia and Indonesia makes more sense. Both countries display strong gender beliefs - an overwhelming three-quarters of Australian female respondents said gender equality is important to them - that translate to lower levels of approval for gender representation in advertising. “Consumers in Australia have always been big advocates of gender equality, and the findings from our consumer research support this,” says Wang.

Paul Rees-Jones, executive planning director at Clemenger BBDO, says that the apathy towards advertising and the low level of approval around gender portrayals in ads among Australian consumers are not a surprise given the industry’s legacy in stereotyping gender and the lack of communications that represent “the truth”. “Unfortunately, (there is) too much work that is not within the truth — sensationalist, indulgent and absolutely irrelevant,” says Rees-Jones. Of the 10 most complained-about ads filed with the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau between January and June this year, six were singled out for inappropriate sexual innuendos. (This ad by Ultra Tune Australia, below, topped the list with 357 complaints).

“We are living in a new era that demands creativity but I think we need to be accurate about what we mean by creativity,” says Rees-Jones. “Advertising can no longer be a made-up construct, it has to be based on the real world applying genuine insights, and solve a real problem.”

Knox Balbastro, regional associate creative director at DigitasLBi, agrees, saying that the problem arises when people are not represented the way they are in real life. “It’s not about how men and women differ but rather how people are individuals with a lot of complexities, not just one-dimensional characters,” says Balbastro. “There are so many stories to tell and so many formats to play around with, we shouldn’t limit ourselves by presenting a gender and not a person.”

She had to undo a lot of her own gender ‘conditioning’ for a recent contact lens campaign with a female Muay Thai fighter, she explains. “This project is quite close to my heart because it helped me see my own internal biases when it comes to the portrayal of women. She’s a strong character with a clear vision of who she is but in my head, I kept wanting her to look more girly and act more like a model when we were filming her.”

The Indonesian gender psyche

Over in Indonesia, where 39 percent of women and 42 percent of men surveyed said that their genders are accurately represented in advertising, the trends are too fast-moving for any stereotype to stick, says Nugroho Nurarifin, executive creative director of Grey Group Indonesia. “In the past, there was an expression that a woman’s place in life can be summed up in three words: dapur, sumur, kasur [kitchen, (water) well, and bed]. But by the ‘60s no one had any problem when the all-female band Dara Puspita ruled the airwaves,” says Nurarifin. By the ‘70s and ‘80s, it had became quite common for women to appear in motorcycle ads as riders in a non-sexualised context, says Nurarifin, since they were the target audience.

“The way a man is portrayed has (also) varied greatly over the years across different categories,” says Nurarifin. “In the full-flavour clove cigarette ads, machismo and occasional sexism is still common. But I would argue that it is less prominent compared to say 25 years ago.”

Indonesian tea brand Tehbotol Sosro chose a 'unity in diversity' message in this recent ad

Even though more liberal attitudes abound in some areas of Indonesian life, Nurarifin also posits that this once-secular nation has become more religious in recent years, and more ads are now featuring women in hijabs. “As a society, Indonesia is quite complex. Because even when more and more ads are featuring women in various roles, a lot of these ads also cast the women as mothers. And that might have been the expectation of the society,” says Nurarifin.

Still, a key finding from the Mintel study is the relative effectiveness of advertising on Indonesian consumers. Overall, Indonesian consumers pay significant attention to advertising (53 percent) and are relatively more affected than in the other countries by the use of models in advertising: 45 percent of metropolitan consumers. This figure rises to over 50 percent among metropolitan Indonesians who belong to the higher income brackets.

Call to action

While the casting of men and women in prescribed gender roles in ads has long been the bane of gender advocates, Dhiren Amin, head of marketing for Southeast Asia at Kraft Heinz, argues against critics who pick on spots that show women in domestic roles.

“Showing one party doing the cooking is not gender stereotyping. It is a large and erroneous assumption to think that they (the women) are in an unequal relationship when in reality, the men help out with cleaning and cutting the vegetables while the women cook,” says Amin. He explains that productions are often too limited by budget and time constraints to present the full picture, but the cooking scene is often presented in consumer food brand ads since it is the most relevant part of consumption. The other touchpoints must be cognisant of this to ensure balance, says Amin.

To create better ads and campaigns that do not show gender stereotypes, marketers must first start by looking at themselves, says Amin. “It is just a function of being aware of your own relationship, and choosing to represent the lives that you lead is a strong place to begin,” said Amin.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority recently announced its intention to take a tougher line on gender stereotypes in ads, but Asia-based professionals are doubtful such regulation can be successfully enforced over here.

Brands need to ask themselves not just whether they can genuinely involve themselves in the conversation, but also whether they have the credibility and authority to do so meaningfully

Nick Licence, regional director data and strategies at Dentsu Brand Agencies APAC, says the industry itself has the collective responsibilty to act on what constitutes a “good thing” (gender equal ads) and ensure as little work as possible ends up stereotyping the genders. “Processes to identify high-risk categories or products that tend to veer towards gender inequality in their messaging, ensuring adequate filters are in place at both brand and agency levels, simple sanity checks with teams who don’t work on the brand, are what could and should be in place,” says Licence.

In the end, business imperative might be a more persuasive argument for brands to do away with gender stereotypes. A Facebook study with Badger & Winters last year shows that posts and plans that promote gender equality have eight to 10 percent higher brand favourability compared to those than do not.

This is still a fine line for brands to tread in more conservative societies. “Brands need to ask themselves not just whether they can genuinely involve themselves in the conversation, but also whether they have the credibility and authority to do so meaningfully,” says Licence. “If you’re looking to involve your brand in a topic as important as gender equality, then demonstrating that you’ve listened to and involved your audience, and that you truly understand the issue is a far better route than being progressive.”

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