The Representation Project hosted two panels at the Female Quotient Lounge during Advertising Week in New York City last week. Our Executive Director, Dr. Caroline Heldman, moderated a panel on healthy masculinity in advertising. And our Director of Sales and Marketing, Beth Miller, then moderated a panel on the state of women’s representation in advertising. Both panels discussed the landscape of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising.
The masculinity panelists agreed that brands like Gillette, Hanes, Axe, and Zegna should be applauded for departing from outdated stereotypes of what manhood looks like—instead, embracing modern representations of masculinity, showing men as feminist allies, interested in self-care, sensitive, and body-positive no matter their shape or size. But some were quick to point out that nonprofit organizations like The Representation Project should receive most of the praise since we are doing the heavy lifting, through our educational programs, to challenge the old notions of masculinity and provide boys and men with the roadmaps needed to embrace a newer, healthier masculinity. These advertisers are incredibly effective at telling powerful stories visually and quickly, and since they are able to reach far more people through huge television and social media ad buys than most gender justice nonprofit organizations like ours, we are delighted to see these huge brands using their platforms to help advance positive social change. We see advertisements like these as conversation starters and entry points to larger cultural change initiatives possible through our documentary film and curriculum, The Mask You Live In.
On the topic of the state of women’s representation in advertising, we discussed recent research which revealed that 98% of all advertisements for cleaning products, laundry products, and baby items are still targeted to women. Stereotypes like this reinforce the imbalance in domestic work shouldered by women in heterosexual partnerships. And since only 29% of executive positions at advertising, media and tech companies are held by women, down from 30% last year—the stories that we are told through advertising are mostly stories told by men.
We also reviewed the recent ads banned in the U.K. in violation of their new rules outlawing the use of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. The oversight agency banned an ad for Philadelphia cream cheese showing two bumbling dads who lost one of their children—which they said reinforced the idea that only women are competent at childcare. And the other banned was by Volkswagen, and it showed a disproportionately high number of men engaged in adventurous work and play, contrasted by very few women at all, and one most notably leisurely reading a book. Our panelists agreed that similar laws would be unlikely to work in the U.S., but the U.K. laws may be just the thing to force advertisers to clean up their act—similar to how stricter emissions standards in more populous states can incentivize automakers to produce cleaner cars for all states.
Our short time at Advertising Week came to a close with an event celebrating the release of a report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showing that leading and co-leading characters in children’s television has achieved parity. This important milestone shows that the media has the ability to remedy, through programming, some of the harm that it does to girls and women through damaging gender stereotypes in advertising.
- Work in advertising? Hire The Representation Project to consult with your creative teams. Our experts can help you avoid using harmful gender stereotypes in advertising.
- Use our hashtag #NotBuyingIt when you see advertisements that perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.
- Promote awareness and education of limiting gender stereotypes in the media by screening our films Miss Representation and The Mask You Live In in your community and at your local schools.