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Is The Advertising Industry Finally Moving Away From Sexist Stereotypes?

Posted: December 15, 2020
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Advertising has often come under the crossfire for their sexist portrayal of women. But with changing times, are they also changing?

Sexism in advertising has been a norm for long. Whether or not you are a fan of Mad Men, you have to be living under a rock to not realise that advertising is guilty of extreme sexism. From selling cement through a bikini model to having a woman in lacy underwear advocate safe driving, we have seen it all.

Advertising as an industry has come under crossfire for their work, pay gaps, objectification, stereotyping (pink glue for girls) and (maybe) importantly the #MeToo movement.

But here are some thoughts I have:

Advertising is making efforts to change

Unlike a lot of other industries, advertising has the power to undo. Remember the ad that said ‘The Best A Man Can Get’?

Years later, you can talk about ‘The Best Men Can Be.’ The ad in question was equally lauded and criticised. However, it is important to recognise that an industry that built cultural conversations around the aspiration of being a certain kind of man can switch to an altogether different line of conversation.

Why do we talk about ads but never blame clients?

It’s interesting that industries sanction agencies to make ads for them but seldom get embroiled in the cultural conversation surrounding sexism in advertising. Many hapless servicing folks will tell you of instances where they were asked for thinner, fairer models or for a particular ‘look.’ So companies that are still making sexist ads are perhaps more to blame…

In fact, advertising has never shied from employing women. Not in leadership roles or with model behaviour, but historically, even entry-level roles were out of reach for most women.

Advertising has benefited from progressive cultural shifts

You have got to admit that the lifeblood of advertising is to be contemporary and rooted in the cultural realities of the world around. Pay gaps exist, yes but is advertising the only culprit? No.

The industry was caught in the eye of the storm during the #MeToo movement because unlike manufacturing, hospitality or finance – women in the industry had the gumption to speak up. Ditto for media.

There’s an interesting parallel – Kerala reports the highest number of sexual assault cases. This is not because they have the highest assaults but the highest education rates.

Advertising – an easy scapegoat? Or are we missing details?

It’s easier to criticize advertising unlike say an Investment Bank. Doesn’t absolve sexism at all. However, it is easier to judge a woman draped across a man as objectification rather than a woman facing casual sexism while doing financial modelling.

On the one hand, there is an emphasis on the portrayal of women in the ads. However, critics are missing nuances such as digital landscape and how media targeting women still follow sexist norms that traditional advertising did.

Another important thing to know is that advertising has to zoom into a target group for which stereotyping is often needed. We can write articles on share the load but is it speaking to the majority of women or household maids who still do the laundry?

Stirring communication and conversation can only do so when cultural habits and sociological patterns remain the same. And if brands cared they would work on that but behaviour change is pretty hard to effect.

To sum it up, just like pretty much everything else, advertising as an industry has a long way to go. While we outrage at deodorant commercials and cheer for #ShareTheLoad ads, blaming ads, instead of the society from where these cultural narratives stem, is akin to missing the forest for the trees.

Picture credits: Still from Ariel’s #ShareTheLoadCampaign

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