Does avoiding sexism in advertising stifle creativity? Melbourne associate creative director, Sarah Vincenzini, analysed winning films from this year’s London International Awards to find out. Here’s what she discovered:
Whenever sexism and the issue of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising come up for debate, there’s always someone in the back who pipes up to rage that political correctness is stifling advertising creativity. In indignant response, I’ve analysed all the film entries from this year’s London International Awards, to measure whether award-winning creativity correlates with sexist, stereotyped, and one-dimensional portrayals of women – or not.
Why does portraying women as fully rounded human beings matter?
Because there are both cultural and commercial benefits to be reaped.
Realistic portrayals of women increase purchase intent by 26% overall and 45% among women. When women make the decision in purchases of 92% of holidays; 91% of homes; 80% of healthcare; 93% of food; and 89% of bank accounts, the business case is crystal clear.
Then there’s the cultural impact. Gender equality improves when attitudes towards women improve. Current research by Women’s Health Victoria and RMIT has found that sexual objectification causes people to see women as animals or objects; men become more tolerant to sexual harassment and violence; women’s capacity for sexual satisfaction is impacted; problematic stereotyped gender roles are reinforced; and perhaps most worryingly, children learn that masculinity is associated with higher social status.
How do you test whether an ad portrays women in a positive manner?
I’ve used three simple rules to check against:
- Does the ad have at least one unobjectified woman in it?
- Whose screen time is not devoted to supporting a man’s story?
- And who has personal agency / her own narrative arc?
Essentially these rules ask that there must be at least one woman in your ad who exists as more than a sexual object for the consumption of the other characters or audience; as more than a supporter or nurturer devoted to the realisation of a man’s goals or journey; and, convey at least some sense of being able to making her own choices in her own story.
Of the 20 unique films that won a Grand, Gold, Silver or Bronze LIA Award, women were featured either as the protagonist, featured talent, or background talent in 18 of them.
Of these 18 ads, only three failed on one rule (all for featuring women whose screen time was devoted to a man’s story), and none – ZERO – failed on all three rules. The result? That ads free from sexism, one-dimensional female characters and stereotypes are also the most creatively-recognised and awarded advertising in the world.
Some notable points from the analysed ads:
Libresse’s Grand LIA-winning spot, directed by Kim Gherig, Viva La Vulva, did feature female nudity, both abstract and photographic. Though, for an ad that featured multiple visual metaphors of female genitalia, these depictions never veered into slobbery sexual objectification. Rather the whole ad set about to celebrate and destigmatise the vulva from its stereotypically taboo and objectified history.
The beer ad, traditionally the most sexist product category in advertising, did not fail our test. In Heineken’s Unmissable, we see multiple vignettes of people watching soccer and being somehow distracted during a key goal-scoring moment. Only one vignette featured a female protagonist missing a goal-scoring moment, but in her 7 seconds on screen, we see a real narrative arc that portrays her as a fully rounded human being.
It’s tricky for fashion campaigns not to be objectifying, especially ones that mine Instagram and influencer culture. Diesel’s Be a follower series of ads feature sexy, glam, and aspirational women (and men), who come across as desirable – but not objectified. Their lives may exist in servitude of their Insta feeds, but these influencers are portrayed as clearly in control of their own bodies and stories. These ads are a good example of how power and choice need to be threaded into characters, scripts and production treatments in order to avoid harmful clichés.
The most problematic ads of the bunch were the two Snickers’ Not Smooth films. In these spots, the featured females are called “boring” at a terrible party, spoil the fun for some inept bank robbers, and pretty much exist to hand the hero male a Snickers to remedy his shitty behaviour.
The two Spark ads, Wedding Speech and Generation Voice are both magnificently directed by Christopher Riggert, who creates complex, multi-dimensional characters with every frame of film. In lesser hands, the bride in Wedding Speech could have been a tired “bridezilla” stereotype, which would have impacted the pure watchability, emotion and entertainment of the overall result.
The last ad worth mentioning is the John Lewis & Partners Elton John story, The Boy & The Piano. Another beautifully crafted ad, this spot tells the story of a Christmas gift that changes a boy’s life. Elton John’s mum appears as the piano gift-giver in this story, with her moments on screen devoted to watching and supporting her son’s hero narrative arc – so technically this ad fails on rule two. However, we’d argue that Elton’s mum’s screen time conveys her emotion and personal enjoyment at watching her son’s growth as an artist over many years, making her portrayal feel less servile and more of a self-motivated choice. While the nurturing-mother-enabling-the-male-genius trope makes an all-too-frequent appearance in many stories, here the director’s choices make her characterization feel appropriate to the truth of their story, and more multi-dimensional than a typical supporting female character’s role.
The idea of the rules is to ensure that female portrayals challenge old stereotypes of women as sex object, supporter or mother; and encourage advertising that shows women as capable of having equal authority, opportunity, and rights as their male counterparts. Advertising shouldn’t need to rely on trite stereotypes or objectified bodies to sell stuff, and it’s clear that the LIA awards jury agree. Research has already proven that there’s cultural and commercial power in advertising that’s free from sexism and stereotypes – now, we’ve demonstrated that better female representation does equal greater creative power too.
Sarah Vincenzini is a Melbourne associate creative director, and author of campaignbechdel.com.
The statistics and research quoted in this article were sourced from SeeJane.org, Women’s Health Victoria, RMIT, girlpowermarketing.com, and Harvard Business Review.