Model mother or pretty face: campaign reveals seven potentially harmful female stereotypes in ads | Australia news

Leonardo Rasaki

Advertising agency founder and gender consultant Bec Brideson beamed with pride when her 11-year-old daughter pointed out the students at her all-girls school were being taught muscle anatomy by studying a drawing of a male body.

“My daughters have been trained to look to notice that male default and see that it’s all around them,” Brideson said.

“They’ve started to see that they’ve been invisible and they are able to point out when they see that inequality.”

Brideson, who founded a female-focused advertising agency in 2004, said while diversity in the sector has progressed beyond the 1960s world chronicled in Mad Men, the way women are portrayed in advertising is still plagued by stereotypes. She said she wants bolder action to ensure sexist advertisements do not contribute to gendered violence.

This drive led her to become a reference group member of shEqual, an initiative launched by Women’s Health Victoria (WHV) to promote gender equality and reduce sexism in advertising.

The movement brings together organisations and individuals from the advertising industry and gender equity sector, and has been preparing to launch a new video series and digital campaign aimed at marketers about the seven common female stereotypes in modern advertising.

A WHV issues paper in 2018 found ads were still dominated by white, young, able-bodied and heterosexual people, with men typically depicted as “powerful and independent” while women filled stereotypical roles such as housewives, mothers and girlfriends, and were often sexualised.

This Arnott’s campaign from The Neighbourhood was nominated as an example of the observed woman stereotype.

The WHV paper cited multiple studies which found men exposed to images that objectified women were more tolerant of sexual harassment and interpersonal violence.

In 2019, the UK’s advertising watchdog banned ads depicting men and women engaged in gender-stereotypical activities but Australia has no equivalent ban.

The Australian Association of National Advertisers’ code of ethics prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and degrading sexual appeal. It notes stereotypes may be used but should avoid suggesting the stereotypical roles are always associated with that gender.

shEqual developed the stereotypes by analysing of its internal ad library of campaigns launched between 2016 and 2021.

The seven stereotypes it found were:

  • Model mother – depicting women as the sole caretaker of the home and children.

  • Passive little girl – ads showing young girls playing with dolls and home appliances.

  • Observed woman – women losing their voice to a male narrator and often intersects with the sexualised woman stereotype.

  • Sexualised woman – the seductive woman that suggests only value is their sexual appeal.

  • Pretty face – ads that only include women for aesthetic purposes.

  • Magical grandmother – older women, often in the kitchen, as a supporting character who is there to offer love to younger characters.

  • Ticked-box character – women from diverse backgrounds being included but without any substance, lines or backstory.

The chief executive of WHV, Dianne Hill, said it was vital for the health and wellbeing of women that ads don’t reinforce dangerous expectations and social norms.

“The average Australian sees 5,000 adverts a day, so it’s hard to overestimate the power they have to influence people’s views,” she said.

Further shEqual research found there were business opportunities on offer to brands brave enough to shun common stereotypes.

“I’d been trying to raise the inequalities in the industry for a long time, but people saw it as sort of like a feminist debate and a political stance and something that was not necessarily a commercial tool,” Brideson says.

“But through shEqual we’ve got data to support the inclusion of progressive portrayals of women which means advertising agencies can’t ignore the facts that are presented there.”

Founder and chief executive of marketing consultancy firm TrinityP3, Darren Woolley, said the advertising industry had not adapted to the complexities and diversities of the modern world.

“The seven stereotypes are core characters you see often and the good thing about the research is it makes people think about the laziness of them,” he said. “These stereotypes increase the chance of women being exposed to domestic violence which is the concerning part of the research.

“Stereotypes have been used in advertising as a short cut and that’s because it was a way to flag an audience by getting them to associate either directly or aspirationally with the brand in a 30-second ad. It was easy to do. But the world has changed.”

Speaking after the Victorian government injected a further $1m to shEqual to fund the campaign, the state’s women’s minister, Natalie Hutchins, said it was important that advertising reflected ideals in society.

“We’re so proud to support this nation-leading work to bring lasting change when it comes to gender equality,” she said.

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