We don’t want flowers, just fair advertising

Benedetta Vertuani Junior Copywriter
Advertising: pride but also prejudice

Be ladylike. Find yourself a good man. Don’t waste your time on maths, it’s not for you. Beauty is everything! By definition, stereotypes are mental shortcuts that should help simplify life. In actual fact, they complicate it. Especially for us women. And especially when talking about advertising, the mirror of society and its ideas, values, clichés and biases, like sexism.

OK, BUT WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “SEXISM”?

Content is considered sexist when it defines people using clichés based on their gender or sexualises them. Today, unlike a few decades ago, we no longer have housewives slaving over the stove and men as the breadwinners, we’ve moved on: but you know what? Stereotypes in advertising have evolved with them but have never truly died out, a bit like homo sapiens. 

FIFTY SHADES OF FEMALE

Over the past few years awareness of gender inequality has grown significantly, thanks in part to movements like #MeToo, which allows women to speak out about sexual harassment. Yet, there are still far too many adverts that represent stereotypical women. We are still portrayed as being kind and caring, addicted to fashion, obsessed with beauty, an object of desire, arm candy or depicted in absurd expressions of ecstasy, as if a yoghurt were all we needed to achieve nirvana.

Or we are portrayed in raptures over an electrical appliance: hands up who hasn’t jumped for joy at the sight of a new fridge! But how are men portrayed? In high-powered roles and associated with social and professional issues a lot more than women.

BUT WHY DO THEY DO IT?

Brands or advertising agencies often fall into these stereotypes without actually realising it, perhaps because it didn’t occur to them they could be misunderstood. Other times, however, the attitude is “it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, as long as people talk about it”, creating a trivial to-do that soon blows over, leaving nothing in its wake. Sometimes people simply still think sex sells: I, who write copy for a living, rule that out completely, just like the whole team at Life and the male and female researchers at the University of Padua and Trieste. To find out more, click here.

AND WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

While it’s true that we are influenced by advertising, it’s just as true that advertisers, brandishing keyboards and drawing tablets, have the weapons to challenge sexist advertising, delivering an image that is closer to the truth and improving society as a whole. But how?

  • For a start, we can approach advertising projects with a different attitude and listen more carefully to the objections raised by our team: do they all agree that the ad respects the dignity of both women and men?
  • Stop and ask yourself this: if you put a man in the same ad, would it have the same effect or would it look a bit strange? Some questions are more important than the answers!
  • Try and avoid images which endorse stereotypes: so no photos of women posing in front of washing machines or men in suits and ties in the office!
  • No more exploitation of the female body because we don’t need come-hither looks to sell a pudding. Honest.
  • And report any sexist ads to the Advertising Standards Authority because it’s the right thing to do.

More inclusive advertising would be a pleasant surprise and would make communication more credible and, therefore, more persuasive. Don’t you think it’s worth it?

SHINING EXAMPLES

Some brands and communication agencies seem to have taken this advice to the letter. Take, for instance, the Lego Group, which this year celebrated International Women’s Day by recreating its iconic 1981 advert “What it is is beautiful”: the message that comes across loud and clear from this campaign is that to change the world, all we have to do is give every little girl the chance to express her true self for a future that lives up to her hopes and aspirations. 

The Chicco campaign #MAMMAE, which has been airing for a couple of weeks now, is also worth a mention as it debunks the nonsense that you cannot be a mother and realise yourself professionally and personally at the same time. I could go on…but there is one more I want to share with you and it is the Barbie ad which ran a couple of years ago called “Dads who play Barbie”. In the ad, Dads are seen playing with their daughters at being astronauts, doctors and yoga instructors, turning the strict and manly image of the “family man” on its head and sending the message that their daughters can be anything they want to be.  

LASTLY, A THOUGHT TO TAKE HOME WITH YOU 

So why is it so important to talk about these issues? Because, to quote the legendary American copywriter Bill Bernbach, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level”.