29 January 2020

From 'You do the girl boss thing' to hapless fathers leaving a baby on a conveyor belt, the days of women and men being stereotyped in adverts appear numbered.
Person holding cleaning spray wearing marigolds

In recent months, companies have been rapped over the knuckles for adverts which fall foul of new industry guidance.

What do these rulings signal for business? David Marshall, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh Business School, shares his thoughts:

"The new guidance has been broadly welcomed within the advertising industry. There was a sense that these were issues that needed addressed. Advertising has, to date, tended to portray men as dominant and aggressive whereas women are seen as passive, submissive, or enticing. The guidance also means you can't mock someone who doesn't conform to gender stereotype.

"A key challenge is that the new guidance says you must not use stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious offence. But what constitutes harm and what constitutes offence? Within the industry that's a topic of debate at the moment."

The recent rulings have prompted some to wonder: where was the sense-checking at the advertising companies? How did these adverts get on air in the first place?

"Companies have always been aware of the need to check their campaigns. There are processes in place to help them vet campaigns before they go out, and ad clearing companies like Clearcast offer advice on TV advertising. But ultimately it's up to the ASA to investigate complaints from the public. That's the basis of the current system."

What can we learn from the adverts judged to cross the line that the new guidance sets down?

"The line is changing in response to broader social changes. But does advertising mirror or mould society?

"There's an argument that advertising should mirror what is happening, so if we see a more diverse and inclusive society then advertising should reflect that. Equally, just because it's reflecting what we see that's not a reason to produce advertising that may cause harm or offence.

"The other argument is whether advertising has the potential to mould behaviour and change attitudes. How do the images presented in advertising shape our expectations and behaviour? And do we endorse them? For example, in our own work looking at magazine advertising, we continue to find gender stereotyping that reinforces traditional family roles. Equally, the families featured in the print campaigns tend to be white middle-class families with mum, dad, and two kids. You could say that isn't reflecting diversity and reinforces one idea of what a family is."

How can businesses create eye-catching adverts without crossing the line?

"In advertising products and services we are trying to communicate in a way that resonates with the target market. Stereotypes are easy to understand, but these oversimplified generalisations often mask differences and lead to incorrect evaluations.

"For business the big challenge is creating something different and distinctive, something that allows you to stand out. But if you go too far you risk alienating your target market. If you've a campaign that is totally inclusive and appeals to everyone, that's fine if that's what your brand is doing but if you've got a very specific segment the challenge is to appeal to that segment without resorting to narrow stereotypes."

In what way do concerns over stereotypes in advertising reflect wider issues in business?

"As part of the Marketing Society's Amplify festival that the Business School hosted last summer, we ran a gender stereotyping workshop with presentations from industry and academia. There was a recognition that this wasn't just about the advertising but a much broader issue about what companies do. It's about organisations being mindful of diversity and inclusion, and that will increasingly be important when potential clients are considering which advertising and marketing companies to use."

David Marshall

David Marshall is Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Read about Prof Marshall and his colleagues' study of magazine advertising in The Conversation:

Keeping Mum in the Kitchen