NEWS13 March 2019

Getting gender right: why advertisers must do more to reflect society

FMCG Impact 2019 Media News Technology Trends UK

UK ­– The industry is in denial over its “success” in redressing the gender balance in advertising – and must radically rethink its approach or risk alienating consumers and losing business value. 


The industry is in denial over its “success” in redressing the gender balance in advertising – and must radically rethink its approach or risk alienating consumers and losing business value.

Most marketers ( 80%) think that they are doing a good job avoiding gender stereotypes – but consumers overwhelmingly disagree.

Some 45% of consumers think that women are being portrayed inappropriately in advertising, according to Kantar’s AdReaction: Getting Gender Right report, published earlier this year. Ads featuring only women use comedy less than half as often as ads featuring only men ( 22% vs 51%).

And that all matters, according to an MRS Impact 2019 panel on ‘Getting Gender Right’. The Kantar research also reveals that almost all ( 98%) of ads for baby, laundry and household cleaners are geared towards women, for instance.

“I feel very strongly that women have to have a voice in that and that’s what is so scary about those stats,” said Lynne Parker, founder and chief executive of Funny Women, whose organisation has helped shift the needle towards equality in the comedy world. “The cut-through isn’t coming through.”

“We all make assumptions,” panel chair Jane Ostler, global head of media, insights division, Kantar, said. “The question is are they lazy assumptions or is it conscious? Marketers need to start asking themselves a lot of questions, as do media agencies, creative agencies and researchers.”

It is incumbent on the industry to reflect society, but panellists all agreed they had a duty to help shape it, too. Amelia Torode, founder, The Fawnbrake Collective, said: “We must do both. It is perfectly possible and the right thing to do.”

She said it feels hard to do at the moment because we are living in a time of cultural flux and a brand’s responsibilities can feel difficult: “We suddenly find ourselves at the sharp end of cultural wars and wading in to debate that people perhaps feel unqualified to deal with.”

Grainne Wafer, global brand director for Baileys and Roe & Co, Diageo, called it a “huge responsibility” for clients. There still weren’t enough women in advertising and that had to be tackled, but those women had to be interesting and have something to say beyond their gender. “That’s more subtle, it’s about who is in control and who is driving the action.”

Speaking about a Bailey’s advert from five years ago, Cream with Spirit, she said: “There are a lot of women in it. But the sort of woman we’re showing is an impossible aspirational view of a woman. This is an industry challenge, not just a Bailey’s challenge.”

Now the brand is moving towards more realistic, often humorous portrayals of women, such as the Don’t Mind if I Bailey’s spot. “It’s a domestic setting… It is more playful and modern. These are small, subtle shifts that can make a big difference.”

Beyond the content, Ian Edwards, planning director, Facebook, urged advertisers to think again about their targeting – who they wanted to see their ads, particularly online. It was common for a lager brand to want to target 18 to 34-year-old men, he said. Yet 65% of people who drink lager are over 35 and 20% is women. On TV, such targeting would also naturally find some women or older people – but take it online and the only audience you would get would be those 18 to 35-year-old males.

It is one reason why Bailey’s has moved away from targeting by demographic to targeting by occasion. As such shifts happen “gender becomes less important,” according to Torode, whilst Wafer suggested that Generation Z had a markedly different attitude to gender itself. “Things are so different, it is a continuum for them rather than a binary choice,” she said. “We’re going to see a huge change over the next couple of decades.”