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Cracking Down on Gender Stereotypes: What Content Marketers Need to Know

Andrew Brookes 7 years ago

Sexist adverts which churn out lazy stereotypes are going to be banned under new rules announced by the industry watchdog – and content marketers ought to sit up and take notice.

The Advertising Standards Authority has said it will get tough on ads that, for example, show women doing all of the cleaning or men failing at simple housework tasks.

Chief executive Guy Parker said: "Portrayals which reinforce outdated and stereotypical views on gender roles in society can play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people.

"While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole."

‘Body Shaming’ Ad Caused Backlash

The move came about after a big backlash to a ‘beach body ready’ campaign from Protein World. A 70,000-signature petition emerged in opposition to the ‘body shaming’ posters but the ad was not deemed in breach of the rules. The rules, therefore, needed a re-look.


Other similar ‘offenders’ were Aptamil, which had an ad showing girls growing up to be ballerinas, and KFC, which showed a man being teased over his lack of masculinity.

Not everyone has reacted well to the ASA’s crackdown. Some critics fear this is censorship and dilutes the right to freedom of expression. Some fear it’s an overreaction to ban these ads.

Indeed, you might well argue that Protein World got what was coming to it – the ‘court of public opinion’ ensured it was actually ‘shamed’ in very high profile way. You can’t imagine they’ll do something similar in the future and the reaction proved that you can’t ‘get away’ with putting out such material.

Yet while we shouldn’t necessarily reach for bans as a matter of course, far too many talented people are still held back in life because of attitudes to gender. This action, therefore, does feel like a step in the right direction. Progress needs a not-so-gentle shove every now and again and some companies clearly need help in seeing ‘where the line is’.

With the news headlines full of the BBC’s gender pay gap, female football and cricket stars doing the nation proud and a woman getting to the keys to the TARDIS as the next Doctor Who, it seems like a good moment to embrace change. Marketing, after all, has to move with the times and reflect the world around it.

Let’s not be kidded into thinking equality is solely a ‘women’s issue’ though. Men should fight back against this rubbish too. Being pressured to be ‘one of the lads’ or being patronised as being ‘well trained’ when doing the cooking and cleaning belongs in the dustbin of history too.

The ASA is not banning all gender stereotypes, either – just ones that mock people for ‘not conforming’ or which suggest a limit on how people see themselves. To be blunt, it’s a ban on the sort of brain-dead nonsense that has no place in 2017.

What Will Be Banned By The ASA?

Regardless of your views on the whys and wherefores however, the rules are changing and it’s important to recognise the nature of this change.

The ASA has helped to spell out what will be banned under the new rules, with three suggestions of content that is ‘likely to be problematic’:

  • An ad which depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up
  • An ad that suggests a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls, or vice-versa
  • An ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks

Those probably help, although smart marketers really ought to have the sense to be able to work out what is and isn’t right.

Brands Should Seize The Moment

Brands, therefore, should see this as a warning. No-one should want to attract the sort of negativity that Protein World received and these new rules only serve to re-inforce the fact that you won’t ‘get away’ with this.

Yet there’s more to it than that. Why not smash the stereotypes and promote a positive message with your content? Show customers that you lead the way and aren’t just reluctantly following the rules. It’ll help to give off a positive impression of your brand and might have the opposite of the ‘Protein World effect’.

It’s Rubbish Anyway

But there’s something else to consider. Not only are the sort of ads the ASA wants to ban sexist, they’re also rubbish. Repeating hackneyed clichés and lazily spouting stereotypes is the hallmark of the sort of unimaginative claptrap that no self-respecting marketer should be producing. We’re challenged to find new ways to engage, inform and entertain audiences in order to build a richer relationship – dipping into the stereotype toolbox isn’t a way to achieve this in my eyes.

Stereotypes rely on assumptions and broad brush statements – effective marketing relies on research, data and a deeper understanding of an audience.

Stereotypes & Audience Behaviour

That last point is an important one to keep in mind. At Zazzle Media, we encourage brands to see their target customers as ‘personas’ and to tailor their content so it ‘talks to them’. The ASA is not saying this is wrong.

If your product is typically bought by women aged 35-44 then you don’t need to use imagery that targets 18-year-old men to ensure you’re embracing equality. That would be daft. There’s nothing wrong with reflecting your audience – that’s the right side of the line drawn by the ASA.

It does, however, show the importance of doing this work properly. If you’re tempted to make lazy assumptions about your audience – sexist or otherwise – then your marketing efforts won’t work. Your research has to be in depth and needs to get to the heart of actual audience behaviour. Ignore this at your peril.

The ASA’s announcement shows that society will not tolerate sexism. Content marketing needs to do its bit to follow suit by ignoring any temptation to slip into stereotypical copy and imagery and by taking the opportunity to embrace a positive message instead. It also needs to redouble its efforts to produce content that is better and based on evidence rather than assumption.

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