'Sexy Me Time' woman or 'Hapless Everyman' husband?

Julie Seal, Creative Strategist at Facebook, provides a light-hearted look at why gender stereotypes are rubbish.

Some of my not-so-favourite stereotypes are 'Sexy Me Time' woman. She's found everywhere from inexplicably finding yoghurt erotic to drinking diet fizzy drinks. Lately she's found her way to booze, travel and even insurance. She giggles inanely at everything in a 'ooh, aren't I naughty?' way; she’s always stunning, and is frequently found in the company of a totally vacuous and mute muscle-bound male torso-for-hire.

Next, there’s the straight-forward 'Hapless Everyman' husband

I know a lot about this guy, personally. My lodger is an ads actor and cast as 'tall-ginger-slightly-portly-of-average-attraction' (he'll not love me for this, but it's his secret weapon). This guy is never too attractive to be threatening, and often looks either bemused or blandly satisfied. He’s always embarrassed by his lack of cool, his more knowledgeable friend, his foot-in mouth comments or not-at-all embarrassed but probably should be.

So though seemingly not insidious, they are eye-rollingly predictable

After years of the same old tropes surely it’s time for more and here’s the industry’s most-loved word – authenticity. The world really has moved on. And while diversity can be helped through casting, stereotype-smashing needs to be done in the original concept. That’s why the responsibility for the work lies with everyone in the team to notice what others might not in the most polite and non-preachy way possible. Because nobody likes to realise they’re accidentally being a bit sexist (or racist, ableist, homophobic, etc). So the question begs, do the cultures of our ad agencies places allow for that ‘call out’ to happen? A simple test would be to think that if the Executive Creative Director was discussing an idea, could a junior in the team comfortably point out the sexism? Would it feel safe to do so? Or would they feel derided, shy, weird or rude for doing so?

Are advertising agencies diverse enough for stereotypes to be even noticed?

Which brings me onto ad agencies and if they’re really diverse enough for stereotypes to even be noticed, and inclusive enough for those stereotypes to comfortably be called out? Sadly I’m sure they’re not. Let me give you an example. I recently had a conversation with a Creative Director that went like this; ‘Hmm, cute, but do you think that it’s a bad thing that stereotypes portray mums as perpetually warm, nurturing, ever-baking and comforting home-makers?’ My reply: ‘Yes, because mums also fix cars, are engineers, and some only cook things that ping, hate pinnies and mashed potatoes and having to feed people. Mums are people, complex, individual, fascinating and diverse as dads, who don’t all like power tools and sports.’   

This conversation was with a straight, white, privileged man. I’m senior and non-shrinking. So I called it out so the next girl who sees the ad won’t feel trapped into following the limiting path of the ‘nurturing mum’, but instead the ‘everything is possible’ human they can be.

If we don’t have crucial conversations like these, mistakes will happen

In offices all over adland we really need to constantly question what kind of society we want to shape, because (and here’s one for the egos to celebrate) there’s no doubt we change culture. We need to create it, not just reflect it (retrospectively).

So maybe my problem with gender stereotyping in advertising isn’t about the gender stereotypes at all...  it’s that we all too often depict 'real' lives in ads. And that's never been my favourite style of advertising because while the stories told and the characters shown are intended to be 'relatable', how far do they go in actually go in genuinely reflecting our complicated gender dynamics?

In my own family, my mother isn’t ‘mumsie’, but sporty, exciting, and entrepreneurial. My dad is the amazing family cook and ‘mumsier’ than the rest of the family put together. My sister, the make-up artist isn’t a done-up dumb dolly-bird but instead subtle and incredibly smart. My other sister, the scientist isn’t just bookish but also a talented and eccentric artist. When our own family dynamics decry what we see in ads, sometimes it feels like it’s only ever the media that orchestrates these supposed gender roles. Maybe real real life isn’t really possible to depict in 30-seconds?

How useful is ‘relatable’ at the very crucial attribute of piquing interest? 

After all effective advertising – whether TV, press or OOH – often has to compete for our texting, swiping and scrolling attention as much as the ads on Facebook or Instagram do. ‘Relatable’ is too benign to grab that attention. 'Real life' is what we see in sitcoms, movies and soaps and so advertising can become the reserve of experimental forms of craft and storytelling. That’s an exciting prospect. And then the risk of stereotypes is almost entirely mitigated.

Besides, who wants to see ‘real life anyway…? 

I get enough of that in, well, real-life. I'd much rather see slightly bonkers, even for washing powder, beauty products or supermarkets. Give me bodies flopping off floating mattresses and darkly-comic animations, mesmerising surreal trickery and creepy, melting chocolate bunny rabbits any day.

But here’s an even more subtle but insidious possibility… 

Maybe many female-targeted ads prone to gender stereotypes because it’s presumed that women want to see more women being ‘womanly’ and doing typically ‘womanly things’ because it’s assumed that women can’t grasp the surreal, obtuse or artsy? Would Guinness’s ‘Horses’ ever have existed if that product had solely targeted women? When ‘audience: female’ is on the brief, does that incite Sex & The City style (or more recently feminist cause band-wagoning)? I fear it might. Though rarely for the young, exciting and brilliant female creatives, but for the wider team they’re working into.

So there lies the perfect long-term fix – to maximise the diversity of the creatives making the ads in the first place.

In the meantime, maybe we shake the old-school stereotype-perpetuating creatives by raising awareness that it's even a problem. In which case, well bloody done ASA - you've certainly made that point. 

Julie Seal is a Creative Strategist at Facebook and an ambassador for Creative Equals. 

Last updated 21 January 2022