Saturday 3 December 2016

John McGee: Time to call a halt to the advertising industry's lazy use of gender stereotypes

More brands need to move on and adopt a collective cultural change

John McGee

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

'While Bellingham's on-screen maternal heroics came to an end in 1989, after 42 different ads and nearly 16 years of serving up stews to her family, the advertising industry's predilection for gender stereotyping lives on.' Photo: PA
'While Bellingham's on-screen maternal heroics came to an end in 1989, after 42 different ads and nearly 16 years of serving up stews to her family, the advertising industry's predilection for gender stereotyping lives on.' Photo: PA

The last time I checked it was 2016. I know this because the second anniversary of Lynda Bellingham's death is almost upon us and her name has been in the news recently. Bellingham, you may recall, was the Canadian-born English actress, writer and broadcaster who was the public face of the OXO TV ads for many years.

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Always smiling, considerate and cooking up a pot of something hearty for her family, she was the home-maker, the cook and the problem solver. Meanwhile, her somewhat oafish, but likeable, husband, played by Michael Redfern, flapped around the place like a lost chicken who had accidentally stumbled upon a barbecue.

On one of the rare occasions that she managed to unshackle herself from the cooker and step beyond the hall door into the Narnia-like outside world, she could be seen dispensing - I kid you not - cups of steaming hot OXO from a flask on a rain-soaked trip to the seaside.

While Bellingham's on-screen maternal heroics came to an end in 1989, after 42 different ads and nearly 16 years of serving up stews to her family, the advertising industry's predilection for gender stereotyping lives on.

On the anniversary of her death it was somewhat ironic to learn that Premier Foods, the owner and manufacturer of OXO, is trying to break away from outdated and jaded stereotypes which were a feature of its campaigns for so long.

The latest OXO campaign, launched this week, depicts a fictional family that includes mum, dad, three social media savvy kids and a pet rabbit.

While the pet rabbit is off the mid-week menu, this time around dad is a cheery northern chap - with the obligatory beard quotient - and mum actually lets him into the kitchen to share the cooking duties. Not because she is a lousy cook or because dad may fancy himself as a Hairy Biker, but because when it comes to things like cooking and other household tasks, the responsibilities are now shared. And of course, that magic little cube that contains animal fat and ammonia caramel and is the staple ingredient in many bed-sit spagbol, saves the day.

Not surprisingly, Premier Foods has admitted that the old scripts of mum playing the role of part domestic goddess, part superwoman just don't work any more. Why on earth it took the company, and God knows how many market research firms, to figure this out is anybody's guess. But at least it's a start.

Premier Foods is not the only company trying to unshackle women from the stereotypes that have prevailed, in some shape or form, since the 1960s. The world's biggest advertisers - P&G and Unilever -have also upped their game.

Earlier this year, Aline Santos, Unilever's vice president of global marketing, stressed the need for its brands to move away from the gender stereotyping that has dominated so much of its advertising in the past.

With a global marketing budget of €8bn a year and a stable of more than 400 FMCG brands that includes the likes of Dove, Surf, Sunsilk, OMO and Knorr, Unilever's target market is unquestionably female dominated and its purchasing decisions are critical to the company's development.

"We understand that by using our influence responsibly, we can contribute to positive cultural change as well as making better connections with people through our advertising. That's why we've asked every one of our brands to move away from unhelpful stereotypical portrayals of gender, especially for women, and to deliver fresh campaigns that are more relevant to today's consumer," Santos said at the time.

Meanwhile, in the UK - where many of the big brand ads we see on Irish TV originate - the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is also taking a keen interest in the topic and says that it's committed to eradicating sexism and gender stereotypes in advertising. It has also commissioned research on gender stereotyping which is expected to be published in 2017.

One could be forgiven for thinking that all these ads are the end product of a star chamber made up of a group of misogynistic marketing fogies, aided and abetted by frat-boy creative underlings who would be more at home working on Donald Trump's election campaign than in an ad agency. But they are not.

In some cases, the ads have been created and developed with female input (though obviously not enough) and signed off by marketing directors and clients who are also female. But that's not the point.

What is needed is a collective cultural change in the marketing and advertising mind-set. It's time to move on, folks.

The advertising industry is, of course, capable of knocking out wonderfully clever, innovative, creative and effective campaigns that don't dip into the well of lazy mediocrity, sexual innuendo and gender stereotyping. We just need a lot more of it.

It is after all 2016.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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