Written Tuesday 30th March 2021

Sexism Sells: Gender Stereotypes In Advertising

Every campaign needs a catchy jingle. ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’ has become the slogan of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK – but its most recent incarnation has proven problematic.

In January 2021, a UK Government advert was pulled for its sexist depiction of women. The advertisement featured an illustration of four households who were clearly staying at home. That makes sense – but the issue lies in how three out of the four houses showed women taking on archaic roles, such as carrying out household chores and looking after children. The only male character is shown relaxing on a sofa with a female partner. 

Twitter users called the advert “out of touch”, “sexist”, and “oblivious”, adding that it was “spreading misogyny”. 

While the government has insisted that the advert does not reflect its attitude towards women, it’s hard to believe that something this tone-deaf and offensive could be given the green light in 2021.

Or is it?

Banning gender stereotypes

Unfortunately, sexism in advertising is something that still hasn’t gone away, even after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)’s gender stereotype ban came into effect in June 2019. Indeed, it seems that alongside Covid-19, the pandemic of sexism is still well and truly raging in the advertising world.

The ASA’s report, which preceded the ban, found that gender stereotypes in adverts can “lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives” – proving that changing what we see on our screens, in magazines and on billboards daily really could make a difference to equality within our society.

Sexism in advertising is notoriously associated with the ‘Mad Men’ era – when stereotypes were rampant and sex sold. Adverts in the 1950s and 1960s made it clear that it was a ‘man’s world’ and even normalised domestic violence, using blatantly patronising phrases such as “Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer!”

Although this extreme sexism may feel like the stuff of bygone eras, it seems stereotyping is still rife; but as well as wearing aprons and wedding rings, it’s just as likely to don a bikini or exude dangerous levels of toxic masculinity.

Infamous adverts

Sexist adverts have made the headlines countless times in the past. 

You’ll probably remember the furore surrounding the 2015 Protein World advert on the London Underground, which saw ‘Are you beach body ready?’ emblazoned across a bikini-clad model against a bright yellow background. Despite 378 complaints, a petition to ban the ad, and multiple instances of posters being defaced in protest, the ASA eventually ruled it ‘neither offensive nor irresponsible’.

While this result was shocking, London Mayor Sadiq Khan moved to ban ads on TFL that promoted negative body images the following year, stating: “As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end.”

Unfortunately, bad press is still press, and the notoriety of the advert made Protein World, previously unknown to many, a household name – albeit momentarily.

More recently, Peloton came under fire for a Christmas advert that saw a woman ‘reward’ her husband for buying her a bike by showcasing her fitness transformation through a video diary. Her ‘gift’ to him, it seems, was to conform to gender stereotyping and reduce herself to just her looks and weight.

Poor parenting and toxic masculinity

It’s not just women that are stereotyped in adverts, either. As always, sexism works both ways.

One of the first adverts banned under the ASA’s stereotyping rules was by cheese brand Philadelphia. The 2019 clip showed two dads ‘losing’ their babies on a restaurant conveyor belt; the ASA stated that it was reinforcing the concept that ‘men were ineffective childcarers’. 

Interestingly, while the advert was received poorly by men and women, ad agency Unruly found that “female viewers were not only 37% more likely to find the commercial sexist than men, they also had a more negative view of the brand after watching.”

Years previously, in 2009, McCoys also adopted a sexist approach to marketing by targeting its crisps to men. The advert – which was allowed to run at the time, but would probably be banned under today’s rules – punishes a man for apparently not being ‘manly enough’ by removing him from a bar and confiscating his crisps. His crime? Choosing Donny Osmond’s Puppy Love on the jukebox. Toxic masculinity is another way that companies can get it so very, very wrong.

Meghan tackles misogyny

Change can come one advert at a time, and the fight against misogyny in advertising has been going on for decades. Even a future royal may have something to say on the matter.

In 1993, 11-year-old Meghan Markle was moved to incite change in the advertising industry after being appalled at seeing an advert that implied only women did the washing up. The US commercial for Ivory dishwasher soap claimed: “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” 

This infuriated Meghan, and she wrote letters of complaint to the manufacturer, lawyers, news anchors and even the First Lady at the time, Hillary Clinton.

The slogan was consequently changed from ‘women’ to ‘people’ – a moment of success and, perhaps, an outcome that spurred Meghan on to continually stand up and speak out against inequality.

Sexism doesn’t sell

The list goes on. 

How about Co-op’s 2017 blunder, showcasing an easter egg with the strapline ‘“Be a good egg. Treat your daughter for doing the washing up.”? Or PeoplePerHour’s billboard telling women to “do the girl boss thing”? Perhaps you might remember Not Just Cooling’s Nottingham billboard with its problematic strapline: “Your wife is hot. Better get the air conditioning fixed.”?

The Government’s recent advertising faux pas is evidence that sexism and damaging stereotypes are still widespread in our society – even if it is subconscious. 

While changes have been made to ensure the adverts we see promote equality, diversity and inclusivity, there is still an awful lot more that needs to be done. This is without even looking into racial equality and LGBTQ+ representation. 

Let’s hope the people to blame for the Stay Home slip-up have learned their lesson. It seems the ASA may have to do more than just ban stereotypes to ensure companies stop using sexism to sell their products and ideas.