Published in Jan-Feb 2022
“Thank God, we don’t live in the fifties anymore…” “Yeah… you can’t imagine the level of sexism in the ad world at that time… Uff!” This was a discussion about Mad Men between two of my colleagues. As they obsessed over the clothes, cocktail lunches and the casual sexism of the show, I started thinking about the people and ads of a bygone era. Of course, the history of advertising predates the time chronicled in the show, but the discussion demonstrated that whether it was Madison Avenue in the 20th century or Barratt soap campaigns in the 19th century, the advertising industry offers a window into the larger stories of society – stories about power, gender bias, racism and wealth.
Taking a closer look at the stories discussed, I could not help but wonder whether sexist ads were a thing of the past. No doubt, compared to the ads of that time, today’s ads do not convey overt messages that imply that women are dumb and only concerned about pleasing their husbands. Yet, how much has advertising changed in terms of the portrayal of men and women and, most importantly, gender roles within the industry? Thinking this over, my optimism about an industry I love wavered. Advertising and media, despite their self-portrayal as being progressive, have a dark history when it comes to sexual objectification, harassment, and gender discrimination. This problem is not limited to portrayals and narratives only; gender discrimination festers within the industry’s working environment as well.
For Gen Z, gender discrimination continues to prevail despite recent shifts in the representation of women in the media. Only recently, women were compared to used cars by Audi in China, joked about as belonging in the kitchen by Burger King, and in Pakistan in the past decade, the achievements of women have frequently been equated with making ‘the right’ domestic choices. Some would argue that a lot has changed for the better. An industry, with its youth obsession and slimness-fixation, is finally more accepting of older ages and different body types. This year’s Emmy winners are cited as a sign of changing times – because the winning women are close to 50 in age. The media and advertising industries are thus playing a major role in breaking stereotypes. If you think that the advertising industry has made great strides, I would encourage you to think about the ads from the past five years and see how many meet Sara Vincenzini’s Campaign Bechdel test (2017). It’s a simple way to check whether an ad includes women that are not objectified, whose screen time is not dedicated to supporting a man’s story and who have their own narrative or agency. Unfortunately, very few ads meet these criteria and if these campaigns continue to be just ‘a few’ or ‘a handful’, this says a lot about the work the industry is producing.
The Industry and Her-Story
“It’s #TimeTo end sexual harassment in the advertising industry.” This is the tagline of the UK’s most recent initiative for its marketing industry. The initiative provided survey findings that shed light on an apparently open-minded industry fraught with gender discrimination, something that boggled many people’s minds, considering that when it comes to the total number of women working in the industry, advertising may be considered a ‘female’ profession. However, as the #TimeTo initiative has shown, these statistics do not necessarily reveal the biased behaviour, sexual harassment and unfair contractual agreements women in the industry face, despite the progress. Zoe Scaman, the founder of Bodacious, has admitted that while there is misogyny in every field, it is particularly problematic in the case of advertising, as the industry projects itself as being ‘nonconformist’. “You get away with bad behaviour and it is dismissed as ‘just what happens in advertising,’” she says. Scaman’s words reminded me of the challenges faced by many Gen Z influencers in our context. Amidst the rampant online stories about sexual harassment, there are complaints about unacceptable behaviour. Consider how many of these complaints are taken seriously; most people are likely to excuse them with phrases like “that’s common in advertising” or that’s just “a part of becoming an influencer.” Clearly, as an industry, we are still figuring out ways to deal with these century-old biases. If we talk about Gen Z, then social media advertising is bound to be discussed, as this is where the #MeToo Movement took off – with huge implications for people in advertising and media. As a result of this movement, women in advertising have finally been able to talk frankly about harassment, discrimination and the wrongs within the industry.
Although making a sexist ad after #MeToo seems inexcusable, the approach has moved in a different direction. People are now more concerned about who has raised a genuine voice in #MeToo, while powerful players and companies tend to make easily forgettable promises about tackling discrimination. People rarely want to address the root problem – the century-old biases and, as far as the dissemination of feminist content is concerned, many brands hesitate to take up so-called “sensitive topics”– topics that make people uncomfortable, or worse, could create a backlash. Moreover, gender discrimination makes its way in ads – if not overtly, then in sneaky ways. I hate to say this, but a lot of my clients tend to stay away from the “feminism controversy”, preferring to “play it safe”, or simply tap into traditional tropes rather than break stereotypes. This is where we are failing the new generation – by being too scared to make bold statements or rallying for real change.
No doubt the world of advertising today is different from the past in terms of the platforms available and the way consumers react towards them. Yet, despite this, some mindsets and behaviour patterns within the industry have remained consistent. In this sense, advertising’s historical gender discrimination helps us understand why advertisers and consumers continue to behave the way they do. I believe acknowledging this will help us work towards a better mindset that mirrors the work as well as the working conditions in the sector.
It’s not the end. Her story has just begun.
Aneera Fareed is Social Media Manager, BBDO. Pakistan.