So here’s a litmus test for you.
The next time you’re watching tv, listening to the radio, scrolling through Facebook or being generally bombarded with adverts: don’t tune out.
Stop, look and listen, and apply the following two questions to whatever you’re being sold:
1. Is it a man or woman who is using/enjoying/relying upon the product?
2. Could you imagine the same advert but with the opposite sex in the starring role?
Given how much time we are consciously or unconsciously brainwashed by advertising, I’m quite happy with the assertion that marketing sticks firmly to gender roles (if you want more examples have a look at the excellent Gender Ads Project).
The question is rather: why? are adverts life imitating art, or art imitating life?
On one hand: you are a PR or marketing company. You must design a campaign to sell a particular product. In order to do so, and get paid yourself at the end of the day, you carry out market research: who is most likely to use your product? What image of the product, of themselves, do they have/are they looking for? You tailor your campaign accordingly.
For example, if CIF choose to spend a large amount of money on a video demonstrating how a clever princess employs their new Easy Clean Spray to to get to grips with that impossibly dirty bathroom, that must be because their researchers have discovered that it’s principally women (with some strange princess fetish) who’ll buy that product.
They’ll buy it because they’re the ones who will be using it.
Well, technically, yes. The statistics aren’t really a surprise (although they should be, it is 2015) but women do still do more around the house and for its occupants, as the US Bureau of Labor reaffirmed in 2014:
So from a cold, calculating point of view, CIF’s advert is logic, not a deliberate attempt to reinforce gender roles. They want to sell their product; therefore, they market it to those most likely to buy it.
We can hardly blame them for it.
Or can we?
Picture this. You’re four, going on five, and you’ve been allowed to watch some TV. The CIF advert comes on. The heroine/princess has bought said spray and thank goodness she did because she’s done a good job. The bathroom is all sparkly and the heroine/princess is triumphant and proud of her achievement.
As a child, what do you take away from that?
Maybe if you see this once it will barely sink below the surface. But if you see the same or similar thing time and time again as you’re growing up, perhaps what you would take away would be along the lines of a) cleaning is for women b) that role should make women happy.
When spend our entire lives surrounded by gender-biased advertising, how can we not be influenced by the images that are portrayed? Would we ever see an advert of man chewing his lip over the conundrum of his daughter’s muddy football socks, and then brightening when he realizes that help is at hand with X washing product?
Perhaps that advert does exist somewhere (please, cheer me up, and find it for me). But if it does, we’d find it quite surprising. Or at least, we’d notice it. We might not even know why we had noticed it, but we would.
We’d notice it for the simple fact that it is the reverse of what we’re used to.
But before you find me too self-righteous, it’s confession time.
My couple fits with the horrible bar chart above. I do do more cleaning and tidying and washing than my husband. Often when he tries to do bits and pieces, I cluck at him and undo/redo whatever he’s attempted (because he’s bad at it). I think part of that is down to my character; I have high standards, and a certain way of doing things, and must have everything bien rangé (with two small children, I am in constant and active therapy for this mild OCD).
But a) there is certainly some undetermined % of that behaviour which is due to growing up and watching my mother doing all of the household tasks, and slipping into the same (gender) routine myself; b) my husband is bad at it because he lacks the practice, not only since we have been together, but beforehand, when his mother did pretty much everything.
I’m a big girl, and old enough to take full responsibility for fitting in with the graph above. If I continue to personify those statistics, that’s my fault. After all, I hate dusting, hate it, and the husband seems to do that spontaneously enough. And of course, as I’ve already been told by people reading this blog, we mustn’t fall into the trap of generalization. I know there are households where things are pretty fifty-fifty (or even, shock horror, unequal in the other direction).
But: those households are not the norm.
So my question is: what change could it make to the next generation if advertising stopped playing to/recreating* (*delete as appropriate) gender roles – and challenged them instead?
… An ad for a fast car, with a woman behind the wheel, men’s heads turning as she speeds smugly by?
… An ad for a low-fat cereal with a man skipping on the street, having shed those pesky extra pounds?
… An ad where Dad’s load is lightened with a miraculously quick and tasty food product for Mum+2.4 children, waiting hungrily at the kitchen table?
If we were seeing that sort of role reversal, over a long enough period of time: would we one day get to a point where the examples above would no longer appear strange?
That would be wonderful.
But is it even feasible?
Like many changes, perhaps it is, with a little institutional push – a nice government carrot/stick to encourage a different way of doing things. What about, for example, introducing a charter of values for advertising. Or a voluntary code of conduct. Or running an international gender-neutral advertising tender, with the winner being awarded a lucrative government supplies contract for some forward-thinking (probably Scandinavian) country.
Or, sod voluntary: we could just ban anything which falls blatantly into gender stereotyping.
Just ban it. The antithesis of the Nike slogan: I can see the tshirts already.
After all, governments regularly intervene to set standards in advertising, don’t they? In France, the 1991 Loi Evin banned tobacco adverts and drastically limited advertising space for alcohol. Presumably because the government judged that those two products are harmful, recognized the power of advertising in their promotion, and acted to curtail that influence.
So if we agree that gender stereotyped adverts are also harmful (in that they reinforce gender roles and gender inequality), isn’t that enough to take a more forceful approach to getting rid of them?
Come to think of it, why stop there. Marketing is a non-stop Truman’s show of white, middle class, heterosexual people all chosen for their beauty and happy smiles. Is this all, then about something larger – about making advertising more representative of the actual world we live in?
Maybe it wouldn’t be that hard, I tell my best French friend. In the case of gendered marketing, we could get the Assemblée Nationale onto it. Draft a law, get it passed, slap a few big fines on offending manufacturers and their Princess products. We’d have men doing more hovering in no time.
‘Non,’ she disagreed, shaking her head. ‘Parce que, pour interdire les publicités sexistes, il faut pouvoir le définir, le marketing genré ; et là on rentre dans la limite de l’interprétation…’
Which, neatly or irritatingly, takes us back to the starting point. Gender stereotypes: life imitating art, or art imitating life?
There may be no easy answer to that. But what does seem clear is that there is a real potential to change the way we perceive ourselves and our roles in society/the household – if only advertising would go boldly where no
man marketing executive has gone before.
In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping us voicing our exasperation/irritation with the adverts à la CIF. In France, for exemple, you can flag discontent with the Jury de Déontologie de la Publicité – it’s part of their job to strike down discriminatory advertising.
I’ll leave it there. I have a pile of ironing to do.