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Marketing vs Gender Stereotypes


Marketing perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

This is a troubling accusation for a marketing agency to consider, but I think as an industry we’d be first to admit we often rely on stereotypes to do our jobs. How do you understand a brand’s audience without turning them into a list of standard behaviours and tendencies? How do you optimise a clothing retail website without targeting ‘women’s bags’ or ‘men’s t-shirts’? This may seem perfectly harmless and reasonable, but that’s probably because we’re used to a very narrow set of criteria for the type of people we imagine need to buy clothes or use websites.

Recently, UK department store John Lewis made its line of children’s clothes gender neutral (i.e. not labelling anything as specifically for boys or girls). Inevitably this has led to mixed reactions. Many see it as a positive step towards breaking down gender stereotypes, while others find it outrageous… for some reason. They seem to feel parents need gender labelling to guide them to what clothes would be suitable for their child, and that for 8-year-olds, gender should be strictly demarcated. I feel John Lewis was making the fairly basic point that these clothes can in fact be worn by a child of any gender, but it highlights how controversial these breaks from convention can be.gap kids

Though it inevitably causes some fully-grown adults to be outraged and confused, the real difference a move like this can make is when a little girl wants to wear the rocket ship t-shirt, and isn’t met with the response ‘no, that’s for boys’, or likewise when a boy wants to wear something with flowers, or a dress.

In an advert for Gap kids’ clothes, girls were referred to as ‘social butterflies’ and boys as ‘little scholars’. Asda features girls’ clothes with slogans such as ‘ponies rock’, while the boys’ range features ‘Future Scientist.’

Shoe retailer Clarks recently announced its range of children’s school shoes would be gender neutral from spring next year. This came in the wake of many social media outrages at the brand’s attitude, including its use of the name ‘Dolly Babe’ for its range of girls’ school shoes, and ‘Leader’ for the range of boys’. There was also a story reported in the national press about a parent being unable to find robust school shoes for girls in the store, and her daughter being reluctant to try more practical school shoes because they were so clearly and aggressively marketed towards boys.[i]

The National Trust recently came under fire when a visitor to Tatton Park in Cheshire came across this hat in the gift shop:

A hat specifically aimed at young girls, casually celebrating the aspiration of marrying a wealthy, successful man. Again, it might seem like a harmless bit of humour, but would you find it odd to come across a blue hat with the words ‘future footballer’s husband’ rather than ‘future footballer’ on it?

Sadly, it’s still all too common for retailers to pander to outdated gender stereotypes in both clothing and toys for children.

Walk into most toy retailers or department stores and you’ll still find pink sparkly dolls, handbags, and accessories aimed at girls, and scientific and engineering-based toys aimed at boys. It’s been going on for decades and more, and the results aren’t hard to see. The disparity between the number of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) jobs is shocking, with women making up just 21% of roles in the UK in 2016.[ii] As legislation slowly improves access to jobs for women, there are still societal barriers in the form of expectations and traditional gender roles, enforced and internalised from a young age.

Children aren’t born with pre-defined expectations of gender; gender expression is a learned behaviour, and the two most significant ways for children to express themselves – toys and clothes – are still marketed and designed along strict gender lines.lego 1

Society forces gender roles on children from a startlingly young age in this way, but there are things brands can do to break the cycle.

Thankfully some major brands are helping to break down these lines in their marketing. Lego have made some tentative steps with fantastic print ads, and a few nods to gender nonconformitive play in TV ads.

While this astronaut image is inspiring and very encouraging, Lego is also persistently guilty of creating lines specifically aimed at girls with pink packaging, sparkles, and fairies galore.

Last year Smyths Toys ran a TV ad where a boy travels through a series of animated worlds, in one of which he wears a dress and a tiara. He’s also shown against a backdrop of many different toys, both traditionally for boys and girls. It a small but important step, but visibility is hugely important for kids.

Smyths Ad: https://youtu.be/fvwKUBecX54

Recent movie remakes and sequels such as Ghostbusters and Star Wars have drawn criticism from a minority of male fans for casting women in lead roles, but you only have to look at the heart-warming pictures from Comic-Con and other events of little girls dressed as Jedi and ghost-fighting heroes to see how incredibly important visibility of women (and men) in a wide range of roles is. Disney seemed initially tentative about presenting Rey (Daisy Ridley) as the lead character in its marketing and toy lines for the first of the new Star Wars films, The Force Awakens, but for the latest sequel, The Last Jedi, Rey is finally front and centre of toys and merchandise.

Last Jedi toys

In 2017 the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) pledged to take a tougher stance on gender stereotypes in ads. In their words:

‘stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which might be harmful to people, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.’

Their reason for doing this was based on gathered testimony of the real harm stereotypes can cause, rather than a need to appear ‘politically correct’ or to push an ideology as some commentators decided.

Again, it’s young children who are most at risk of internalising the messages and images of marketing, and modifying their behaviour to fit with those images. Adults are also at risk, where the messages reinforce already internalised constraints on how they should act and behave in accordance with their gender. For years we’ve been subjected to images of men unable to do the washing, or women concerned only with their weight and appearance. Men must drink beer, and spend time with other men who also drink beer, while women are purely sexual objects who must eat yoghurt. Lots and lots of yoghurt.

Such internalised constraints and behaviours have real-life consequences, from children feeling they have no place in society, to men feeling unable to express their anxieties to male friends, and women being objectified and sexually harassed in the workplace. Research suggests that more than half of all women have experienced sexual harassment at work, though most incidents go unreported or ignored by managers. For young people, suicide has become the number one cause of avoidable deaths.

You can read the ASA’s report here: Depictions, Perceptions and Harm

For those of us working in the marketing industry, we have a responsibility to reflect the reality of our audiences. Of course there are everyday constraints and concerns that can make this difficult, from needing to target the search term ‘boy’s clothes’, to pleasing the most conservative or tentative of clients. But change is about creativity, and creativity is our bread and butter. When writing a slogan, are you relying on a joke about outdated gender roles? When designing a new website, does your messaging use exclusionary language? When coming up with a campaign, does your imagery needlessly reinforce gender-normative behaviour? It’s always worth asking these questions and others, and stepping outside of our own experience and perceptions as much as possible. When we do this we can come up with better work, and do our bit to foster a better and more inclusive society.

 

References:

[i] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/clarks-gender-neutral-shoes-plans-john-lewis-male-female-a7942081.html

[ii] https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2016/11/women-in-the-stem-workforce-2016

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