Gender is very much on the agenda in 2020

Beyond Binary explores the changing gender agenda in advertising.

Following the launch of their Beyond Binary report, Helen Rose, Head of Insight & Analytics at the7stars looks at the evolution of gender representation in advertising and how brands can better reflect the audiences they aim to engage.

This year has proved to be a pivotal moment in time in highlighting the persistent unevenness of gender equality in society. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, new questions have been raised about the representation and relevance of gender in modern culture.

Gender reference points in popular culture also continue to evolve. Pokémon Go, the global gaming phenomenon from Nintendo, introduced 'Blanche' a non-binary character, along with Star Trek’s recent announcement of their first gender-fluid character.

Progressive brands are the ones leaning into this gender debate, and understand the opportunity to better reflect and represent the diverse audiences they aspire to engage. 

Evolution of the representation of gender

The last eight decades have borne witness to a great deal of change in cultural conceptions of gender and gendered behaviours.

Traditional binary constructions of masculinity and femininity have been increasingly questioned, with issues surrounding gender inequalities and exploitative behaviour the subject of debate.

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the debate is moving from one about two opposing genders, towards a more inclusive rally cry for all types of gender to be represented and celebrated. 

While it’s certainly not an area without pitfalls, it is a movement that brands have a permission to be a part of as they naturally help shape cultural representation.

Representation in advertising communications

Consciously or not, all adverts that feature people contain a stance on gender.

Since the 1970s, consciousness around gender stereotyping in society, the media and advertising has grown. But it was only as recently as 2019, that the Advertising Standards Authority introduced new rules in the advertising code, applying to broadcast and non-broadcast media stating: "Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence".

Entering the conversation provides an opportunity for brands to show their understanding of audiences’ personal experiences. Using that understanding to create new narratives puts brave brands at the forefront of evolving societal understandings of identity. Starbucks 'Every Name’s A Story' campaign is a great example that powerfully harnessed insight from the gender diverse community about the significance of using a new name publicly. The campaign brought scale to a very personal moment.  

Finding a relevant cultural context

Humour is a proven mechanism with which to challenge gender stereotypes and engage consumers in an effective way. However, as male and female brains have been pre-conditioned differently by dominant culture, what they perceive to be relevant (or funny) differs. Even more importantly, as target audiences and decision makers become less binary in dominant culture, use of humour will need to evolve accordingly.

Brands have previously used humour as a means to depict gender, but of course it needs to be handled with relevance to the target audience. Considering the main purchaser presents an obvious opportunity of how to ensure hitting the right mark. Heineken have long been known for their humorous take in communications, and most recent campaign 'Men Drink Cocktails Too' successfully questioned traditional gender stereotypes while also moving towards a wider brand stance on positive gender inclusivity.

The new normal

Representing all genders as equals is now a baseline expectation. To really resonate with consumers brands must understand how gender intersects with the need to give equal representation to marginalised groups, voices, and causes. This is a key consideration for younger, future consumers.

Gen Z, in particular, are far less reliant on gendered signifiers than previous generations. They define success according to different milestones, and as such, pick and choose their identities more fluidly– only 16% agree that their gender is a big part of their identity. And in fact, the majority - 75% of Gen Z - agree that their generation is more likely to view gender as a fluid spectrum than previous generations.

The beauty category is leading the charge in terms of demonstrating this level of empathy and inclusivity. Glossier is just one example of how the brand ethos demonstrates a fundamental shift away from binary considerations on gender, race or sexuality.  Communicating inclusivity rather than exclusivity has helped Glossier successfully build a community with its consumers, who have now become a part of the brands story.

Help to shape the story

Consumers increasingly see the world around them in less binary terms. Brands should not only play to this view, but can help shape it.  

Both dominant and emergent social conventions within gender representation have the ability to help brands connect. Communication strategies that reflect a more modern representation of gender, and continue to evolve the gender story, will prove to be those that are future fit.

In an effort to better understand the changing gender agenda in advertising, the7stars, the UK’s largest independent media agency, along with neuromarketing agency Neuro-Insight and cultural insight agency Sign Salad produced a whitepaper, Beyond Binary, that explores how exactly this shift is taking shape. The whitepaper can be downloaded from the7stars website.

Find out more about the IPA's Diversity and Inclusion initiatives
Last updated 01 May 2024