David Blecken
Jul 5, 2018

Stereotypes: Why advertisers fail to represent social diversity

The final part of a series on ‘responsible advertising’ examines the problems stereotypes in advertising cause, and why marketers need to move beyond this lazy approach.

P&G's 'Like a Girl' is a rare example of an ad campaign that challenges stereotypical gender portrayals
P&G's 'Like a Girl' is a rare example of an ad campaign that challenges stereotypical gender portrayals

During Global Marketer Week in Tokyo, Campaign asked representatives from some of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies how advertisers can become better citizens. The last of a three-part series looks at the need to dispense with unhelpful stereotypes. Read parts one and two here.

“Is this the society we want for our children?”

In May, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) launched a guide to breaking down stereotypes in advertising in partnership with the Unstereotype Alliance, a global initiative with the same goal led by UN Women that launched last June. The premise is that advertising is a major culprit in perpetuating inequality in society.

Among other studies, the WFA’s guide cites a year-long audit of the advertising industry by Unilever in 2015 that found just 3% of women were portrayed in “aspirational or leadership positions”; 1% were cast as “heroes or problem solvers”; and 0.03% were shown as being funny.

Unsurprisingly, Unilever’s research also found that 40% of real-life women did not relate at all to the women they saw in advertising. Unilever is a partner of the Unstereotype Alliance, along with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, J&J and other major companies.

As progressive as many corporations claim to be, their advertising often tells a different story. Stereotypical portrayals exist in any market to greater or lesser degrees. Kae Ishikawa, director of the UN Women liaison office in Japan, who has lived overseas for the past 20 years, said the lack of diversity in Japanese advertising struck her hard when she returned home.

“Twenty years ago, I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “Because I lived here I took it for granted that you only see male-female couples; that it’s only women who change diapers. So I’m sure lots of people just take that for granted today as well.”

UN Women aims to make people—particularly advertisers—realise that “what we take for granted may not be the right thing”, she said. “I would assume that advertisers want to create advertising that reflects society. In Japan, certain gender stereotypes exist and advertising reflects that reality. But we have to ask ourselves, is that the society we want for our children? There’s a huge responsibility for advertisers to create a world that may not exist now, but should.”

Why stereotypes prevail

If brands are to take on that mantle, it’s important to understand why stereotypes remain so prevalent in the first place. Mathias Berninger, VP of public affairs for Mars, called stereotypes “the dark side of the archetype”.  While archetypes are there to help tell a compelling story in a short amount of time, he said, it’s easy for them to degenerate into something negative. He gave Mars’s campaign for Snickers, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’, as an example.

“At the beginning, it was basically as if Mars was the founding member of the Stereotype Alliance,” he said. “We’ve course-corrected it, but really we’re still trapped in the stereotype, not the archetype, conversation, and it’s very hard to change that on a billion-dollar brand. If it’s a multibillion-dollar brand it’s exponentially harder to do.”

Jamie Barnard, general counsel of global marketing, media and ecommerce for Unilever, said it’s essentially due to laziness. “If you’re in the business of mass marketing, stereotypes play perfectly into your hands because you’re hitting the biggest numbers,” he said. “It takes a brave marketer to put an ad out there with a gay couple, or where the main character is heavily disabled.”

He said more people now feel able to take those risks—“risks” meaning representing the true diversity of society—but they have to accept that they won’t please everyone.

“50% will love it and 50% will think it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened. This is where marketers need to be bold. When a brand ties itself to a cause, that brand has to live and die by it. For every 1,000 people who buy it, there’s another 1,000 who’ll stop buying it because they totally disagree with it. It comes down to the bravery of the brand and whether they’re willing to lose in one sector to gain in another.”

Marketers: show some courage for a change

Asked whether a lack of diversity in advertising agency staff is partly to blame for stereotyping, Phil Myers, SVP of global public policy and government affairs for PepsiCo, said it probably was. But he added that marketers have to take the lead.

“We can’t wait for agencies to make themselves diverse,” he said. “We need to challenge people to put themselves in that position. We’ve done it with some of our suppliers. We’ve required them to increase diversity on the teams that worked for us and we have a scorecard.”

But he stopped short of saying PepsiCo was going to take this approach with its agencies. “It’s something I’d need to talk to my colleagues in marketing about before I commit them,” he said.

Ishikawa said agencies and the industry at large should see itself as “a powerful force that can make a difference” for the better. Examples do exist. Berninger said P&G’s ‘Like a Girl’ campaign for its Always brand was a “game changer” that “made a huge difference in our boardroom conversations”.

He said Mars’s own campaign for Maltesers in the UK last year, which featured a disabled cast, had moved things forward for the company. Indeed, in a separate interview with Campaign, Michele Oliver, VP of marketing for Mars UK, said the campaign had been the brand’s most successful in a decade. But it wasn’t easy.

“Our CMO put her career on the line to use people with disabilities and get them an equal place [as able-bodied people] in the ad,” Berninger said. “It could have gone terribly wrong, and all the crisis management people were very nervous—but it didn’t. People need to be brave sometimes.”

Campaign Japan

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