OPINION27 July 2017

Research is the answer to the ad gender stereotyping problem

Media Opinion Trends UK

Despite complaints in some quarters, the ASA’s new guidelines on removing sexist gender stereotypes from ads is following public sentiment. System 1’s Tom Ewing discusses how research can help advertisers tap into positive emotions for better long-term brand building.

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July’s report on gender stereotyping in advertising by GfK for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) created a predictable stir. Campaigners welcomed the new guidelines, which would move to ban ads that imply particular tasks are gendered, or which relied on sexist stereotypes – like mums who happily clean while their family loafs around, or dads who are comically hopeless at housework.

The more reactionary elements of the press, meanwhile, dug up the likes of Nanette Newman to complain that her classic ‘Hands that do dishes…’ ads for Fairy would be banned. (It would take an exceptionally harsh interpretation of the guidelines to fault them, but never mind.)

What about advertisers themselves? It’s safe to say most of them will have shrugged. The fact is that the kind of ads the ASA has in its sights are rare these days. The grossest examples of stereotyping are subject to withering scorn on Twitter, but a lot of the fire has been turned on manufacturers and product lines themselves – like Star Wars toy sets which leave out heroine Rey – rather than the way they’re advertised.  Sexist ads may survive in dank corners of the media world, like obscure daytime cable shows, or urinal posters for DNA tests. But the ASA is reflecting public attitudes, not leading them.

Research has a role to play in all this. One of the reasons brands should be wary of stereotypical ads is that under modern testing methods they tend to perform very badly. One big shift in ad testing in the 21st century has been the rise of new ways of measuring emotional response, and effectiveness models which centre on how people feel about the ads they encounter. Work on the IPA DataMine case study database by Les Binet and Peter Field has established that ads which take an emotional, rather than a message-driven, approach are far more likely to build brands in the long term.

And in emotional terms, stereotypically sexist ads are a turn-off. They potentially alienate large chunks of the audience, and are only enjoyed by a minority. So why does anyone still run them? In recent years they’ve mainly been used by up-and-coming brands as a chance to build fame and name recognition, at the expense of positive feeling. Protein World, the brand behind the heavily criticised ‘Beach body ready’ posters of 2015, are an example of this.

But in the long term it’s not sustainable. Take web hosting service GoDaddy, notorious for its crass Super Bowl ads, which it spent millions of dollars on in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Its spots tested very badly on emotional metrics and regularly came near the bottom of USA Today’s annual poll of the public’s favourite ads. This would generally predict poor business effects, and indeed GoDaddy never showed a profit. But the immense reach even a bad Super Bowl ad gave it let it grow its customer base in advance of a stock exchange listing in 2015. As a public company, GoDaddy needs to pursue profitable growth – the sexist ads have vanished, and the firm turned its first profit last year.

Cracking down on sexist advertising won’t lead to blander or more boring ads. Commercials that play on gender roles can still be witty emotional winners – take M&S’ excellent ‘Mrs. Claus’ ad, one of the UK’s most emotionally effective commercials last Christmas. And cheeky, sexy ads won’t go away either. But brands will need to make sure that these approaches please their wider audience, not just a small, old-fashioned part of it, and research will play a huge part in helping them do that.

Tom Ewing is a senior director at System1 Group and co-author of new book System1: Unlocking Profitable Growth (Out now, priced £12.99 ).