Does advertising have a responsibility to be inclusive?

Gender roles are a prominent part of advertising and communications.

The author(s)

  • Pedr Howard Senior Vice President, US, Creative Excellence
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Gender roles are a prominent part of advertising and communications. Think back to the stereotypical (and now horribly misguided) housewife ads of the 1950s and 1960s. Hoover’s holiday message was a housewife, draped lovingly over her new vacuum, with the text “Christmas morning (and forever after) she’ll be happier with a Hoover.” Move forward and we find the trend of putting girls in bikinis and using sex to sell in every commercial for a “man’s product” such as beer, cars, luxury watches or even fast food. Because who doesn’t find Arby’s roast beef sexually suggestive?

Men are not immune from these tropes with many complaints received about the portrayal of the “dumb dad” who can’t manage to look after a child by himself. Recently, some brands and agencies acknowledge the role they play in shaping and reinforcing stereotypes and are actively deploying countermeasures. For example, Diageo CMO Syl Saller said, “… Advertising is telling stories that are backed by billions of dollars to have them heard. I am convinced we can normalize gender equality with what we choose to show in our ads.”

Gillette, for example, took a direct approach to disseminate messages it believes are for the good of society overall, with ads that addressed toxic masculinity and transgenderism.
This leads to an ethical question for advertisers and their agencies. Increased levels of targeting, programmatic media and the proliferation of digital advertising offer a new canvas. Advertisers can reach people on an increasingly individual level. Many see this as a real opportunity to give increasingly personalized content and “scalable creativity.” We know that advertising is most effective when it is relevant to the people who view it, but the implications of increased targeting have a likely counterpoint.

What if the most effective commercials to men only feature men in prominent roles, and the most effective commercials to women only feature women as the hero? The danger is that if marketers purely chase immediate results, creative might morph such that each ad an individual sees reinforces stereotypes they already believe, instead of showing a “real world” that is more diverse than many actually see every day.

We would argue that advertising has a moral imperative to shape the culture or risk losing gained ground on diversity and inclusion. Azsa West clearly agrees. Major brands may be about to tell us where they stand on this question, through the creative work they share with the world.

For brands and media, the discussion about gender is evolving from representation to a more inclusive definition of expression. In Ipsos' latest What the Future report, industry executives and thought leaders weigh in about how these changes will shape business in the coming years. For this edition, Ipsos surveyed more than 19,000 people around the world – and included a boosted sample of LGBTQ individuals – to understand global attitudes about gender today with an eye towards the future. There's a handy glossary to get you up to speed on evolving terminology. Click here to access the full edition.

The author(s)

  • Pedr Howard Senior Vice President, US, Creative Excellence

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