Gender stereotyping and advertising

In 1950, Heinz ran an advert that contained this astonishing sentence: “Most men, nowadays, have stopped beating their wives”. It then urged women to buy its soups in order to avoid their husbands getting bored at mealtimes (and therefore, presumably, to prevent them from reverting to wife-beating).Gender stereotyping was born in those early days of mass advertising, an era so glamorously and devastatingly depicted in the TV series “Mad Men”.

Men were portrayed as active, clever providers doing important stuff while women were routinely treated as the secondary, weaker sex. They were mothers and home-makers who were often presented as lacking the intellectual abilities of men.

Kenwood’s 1961 ad for a food-mixer boasted: “The Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for!” And a decade later an ad by a now-defunct technology company, Datacomp, implied, by posing a young woman next to one of its telex machines, that even women could use computers.

The rise of the women’s liberation movement appeared to make little difference to the way in which women were treated in advertisements and in the rest of the media.

I grew up watching TV commercials in which women were portrayed as happy kitchen sink slaves who could be made happier still by better ovens, tastier cooking ingredients and more effective washing-up liquids.

Their fulfilment, it was suggested, came from pleasing their husbands and children with good meals, clean clothes and spotless homes.

By the 1980s, women were also being used by advertisers in a different way, as sex objects. The objectification of women has continued ever since.

Then, with a nod towards female emancipation but a distortion of its ethos, came another development: the woman as an object of desirability for other women.

In these ads, women are encouraged to achieve an unattainable ideal by being perfect specimens of their gender. They should eat certain foods (usually to control their weight), use special creams (to improve their appearance) and wear stylish clothes (to appear more attractive). They should, in other words, be slimmer, smaller and prettier.

The result has been the phenomenon of body-shaming. This involves criticism of others for falling short of the supposed ideal or self-criticism for failing to achieve the idealised image as depicted in adverts.

So, although we (meaning men) affect to believe that we have come a long way for the better since that despicable 1950 Heinz advert, gender stereotyping has remained in place.

Complaints by women about the issue have made little difference. Advertisers have blissfully ignored them and that has prompted the Advertising Standards Authority to step in by clamping down on advertisements regarded as sexist.

The ASA is planning to ban ads that perpetuate gender stereotypes. It will introduce rules to prohibit advertising which suggests that activities are appropriate for one gender rather than another. And it will also ban those that mock people who do not conform to stereotypical roles.

It follows an ASA report, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm, which cites several examples of stereotyping. An ad for baby formula shows a baby girl growing up to be a ballerina while a little boy is becoming a mathematician. 

A video game ad starring scantily-clad Kate Upton, cleavage to the fore, suggests that sexual desirability is a prerequisite for leadership.

And an ad for a weight-loss drink, with a large photo of a sun-tanned bikini-wearing model, asks: “Are you beach body ready?” This, said the report, promoted an unrealistic standard of beauty. It was a classic instance of an ad likely to cause body-shaming.

Yet the ad, created by Protein World in 2015, was cleared at the time by the ASA despite 378 objections to the watchdog and a 70,00-strong petition describing it as “socially irresponsible” for objectifying women and demanding that it be banned.

The report’s authors saw it differently. Its lead author, Ella Smillie, argues that the review “shows that specific forms of gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to harm for adults and children.

“Such portrayals can limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they take. Tougher standards in the areas we’ve identified will address harms and ensure that modern society is better represented”.

Not everyone agrees, including some women. Nanette Newman, who famously starred in a series of TV commercials for Fairy Liquid in the 1980s, told Radio 4’s Today programme she couldn’t see the point of a ban.

She considered it to be an over-reaction, a belief by “well-meaning people” that ads have more power than they “really do”. She said: "I think we're all capable of looking at an ad and thinking ‘that’s a bit anti-women’ or ‘that's a ridiculous ad".

Well, for a moment, I wondered whether the ASA might be wrong to institute a ban. I could hear critics saying it was a further example of nanny-statism. I imagined them arguing that advertising has changed over the last 60 years, just as society has changed.

But that isn’t convincing. I agree that persuasion is always better than coercion. I prefer to see a donkey walk forward by eating the carrot rather than being beaten with the stick.

When persuasion fails, coercion becomes necessary. So, on balance, I’m with the ASA over this decision. All of us men who work in the mainstream media cannot be other than aware of the way in which women have been misrepresented by our organisations. We should support this initiative.



*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*