Gender-inclusive advertising: Why aren’t we there yet?

This year, for International Women’s Day, everyone was talking about #BreakTheBias. We are seeing individuals and groups pledging to stand up against discrimination and stereotypes. It’s not enough to just acknowledge inequality anymore and it’s past time to shift into action. Breaking bias is about creating a future where difference is celebrated, and the world is inclusive, diverse and equitable. 

Ellis Jones and many other organisations are working to forge a gender-equal world, so how can we make it a reality? In advertising, it’s all about representation. What we see on our screens impacts how we see the world. Beyond our capacity as creators to stop perpetuating stereotypes, we have the ability to actively challenge them. In a way, we can create the world we wish to see. 

Gender and women’s rights are having a moment in Australia right now. If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that gender-based differences continue to disproportionately impact our lives.

In 2018, OurWatch research found that 70% of men agree equality exists between men and women in Australia, whereas only 54% of women believe the same. 

Workforce data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic presented that the majority of frontline roles, which provide health and social services, are occupied by women. This, alongside a report by McKinsey Global Institute, suggests that women are more vulnerable to the negative economic, social, and mental impacts of the crisis, which only adds to existing gender inequalities. 

Meanwhile, this year the WGEA found that despite some improvements, 85% of Australian employers still post a pay-gap in favour of men across every industry and occupation. All this while women continue to experience an increase in domestic violence and job losses during the COVID-19 crisis. 

In January, we witnessed how gender bias impacts what our society considers acceptable behaviour when Australian of the Year and advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse, Grace Tame, refused to smile during a photo op. Though Ms Tame was keen to point out that the expectation of politeness in the face of discomfort was not a gender-specific issue, it nevertheless sparked conversation around what it means to be ‘woman’ in the public eye and gendered expectations of compliance.

Women in Australia are angry. They are sick and tired of being silenced and dismissed by reasoning born from bias. We have a responsibility to listen and take action. 

How do we see this playing out in advertising?

In an attempt to resonate with audiences of the time, advertising tells stories of human truths and serves as a powerful reflection of the state of our world. So, what can we learn from what’s on our screens right now?

Unfortunately, much of today’s advertising still includes stereotypes and misrepresentations of gender, which simply perpetuate inequality. This is harmful to all genders.

An analysis of 1,147 ads published in the Australian Women’s Weekly between 1950 to 2010 revealed that 60 years later, women are still primarily portrayed in caregiving roles, which prioritise domestic responsibilities over career-driven aspirations. Despite progressive shifts in attitudes towards shared caregiving roles amongst genders, the media still reflects and reinforces traditional notions about a woman’s purpose.

This is not to mention the harmful effects this can have on business; where ads depicting rigid gender norms often fail to connect with valuable audiences, and the company behind the message ends up positioning itself as tone-deaf towards community expectations. 

In 2019, the fitness equipment company Peloton lost over A$2 billion after receiving backlash over a Christmas ad that focused on a woman losing weight after receiving an exercise bike as a gift from her husband. So, when businesses accidentally dictate a culture of how genders should behave, or inhibit consumers’ self-perceptions, not only do they negatively impact women, but also misdirect their intentions alongside incurring financial and reputational damages.

What is the true potential of inclusive advertising?

On the flip side, businesses have much to gain from prioritising gender equality in advertising, with the positive effects well documented. The Association of National Advertisers found that the correct portrayal of women and girls in advertising can improve ad effectiveness by as much as 30%. So, apart from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, there is a significant business case for it too.

Similar outcomes were determined by the Gender Equality Measure (GEM™), which found advertising that portrayed women accurately generated significantly more awareness, recall, and purchase intent than ads that misrepresented genders. 

The GEM™ inspects gender bias in ads and media by asking consumers four key questions: 

  1. What is the overall opinion of the female presented?
  2. Is she portrayed respectfully?
  3. Is she depicted inappropriately?
  4. Is she seen as a positive role model for women and girls?

It then uses the responses to identify unconscious biases and offers data-driven insights to marketers for creating advertisements that are free of gender biases. Telecommunications company AT&T was one of the first to use the GEM™ methodology for testing its ads, and has since reported a 42% improvement in its portrayal of women and girls. 

So, what does correctly employed gender-inclusive advertising actually look like?

In an ideal world, the topic of gender inclusivity would not just inform how an idea is presented, but instead, influence the ideas themselves. And, brands that exhibit this approach to the creative challenge are likely to be rewarded for it. 

This was the case for Axe, the world’s #1 male grooming brand, when it launched the “Find Your Magic” to diminish its decades-old hypermasculine narrative that no longer aligned with its audience. The campaign’s key message “Is it OK for guys?” used real Google searches of tough questions that men and boys were secretly asking on the internet. Its goal was to highlight the underlying societal restrictions that incorrectly define ‘manhood’, which hurts not only men but can have a consequential impact on how other genders are defined as well. 

Similarly, Kenzo’s first fragrance ad, “My Mutant Brain”, received 10 million views worldwide for debunking the conventional tropes of perfume advertising, a product category that so often assumes the identity and orientation of its consumers. The ad used a disruptive and almost-rebellious approach to reframe associations with femininity, which opened the doors to non-binary representations of people in fragrance adverts.

But not every brand needs to address the issue of gender inclusivity overtly. 

Being gender inclusive doesn’t always have to dictate concept or style. Change can also come in the form of presenting new status quos as the norm through subtle and defining work.

At Ellis Jones, we use behaviour change models to inform our communications strategies, using techniques rooted in psychology to change attitudes and behaviours; breaking bias is what we do best. Our work for Future Energy Skills, which positioned women as leaders, to represent them in diverse roles was a branded, behaviour change campaign that generated awareness and demand for hiring accredited tradespeople belonging to any gender. Another campaign to craftly channel inclusivity was our work for Solar Victoria, which challenged gender stereotypes by flipping the activities that the men and women characters were shown engaging in. 

It’s also essential to acknowledge that gender inclusivity in advertising goes beyond just visual representation. To simply show a range of genders, or even role reversal at best, is not enough anymore. Rather, brands should incorporate gender-inclusive language across all their communications, and approach problem-solving from increasingly inclusive perspectives. 

As a solution to help brands achieve gender inclusivity in ads, we helped develop a new national strategy with Women’s Health Victoria. The strategy provided insights for the Seeing is Believing framework, the first coordinated effort in Australia to promote gender equality with the goal of ending sexist advertising. 

Our most recent triumph for promoting gender inclusivity across different channels has been our work on the Australian Queer Archives’ website, which is a digital expression of the organisation’s mission – to collect, preserve and celebrate material from LGBTIQ+ Australians in an effort to elevate the voices of diverse genders. 

Whatever the approach to proactiveness, organisations should recognise that gender-inclusive advertising is an opportunity to lead the industry and change society for the better.

More importantly, advertising that promotes consumers to embrace themselves will resonate better than those that force conforming or traditional ideas. The world is becoming more gender inclusive, and so diversity, equity and inclusion is no longer a brand differentiator — but a business imperative. 

Talk to us about how your business can #BreakTheBias beyond this year’s International Women’s Day, and lead the way to a more progressive and inclusive future.