Adland must seriously embrace equality

Maxine Brady shares her take on stereotyping in ads

The feminist movement has done much to change how women are depicted in ads. Feminism is defined as political movements, ideologies and social movements sharing a goal: to define, establish and achieve political, economic, personal and social sex equality. It includes establishing educational and professional opportunities for women equal to those for men.

The key word is equal. Interestingly, what we have often seen is not an equalling of the sexes but rather a tipping of the balance into a new era of inequality. It is a steady societal change which, ironically, has left many young men feeling worthless, or at least worth less than women. Men’s sense of place in society is being slowly eroded through the rise of ‘Incels’.

Incels are involuntary celibates. It is reflected in ads with images of young men as dopey, moronic or as Instagram-ready beefcakes who are uber-sensitive to their equally Insta-ready girlfriends. Meanwhile, the men who still hold power in society often take on one of two extreme positions. Firstly, they cling to notions of femininity anxious to imply chasteness.

It manifests in our courts, where women are castigated for their choice of underwear, use of make-up, fake tan and other fashion decisions. Secondly, there is the idea that women’s sexuality is something which can be traded or demanded as a kind of quid pro quo payment for connections or other favours. Of course, many of us still use sex to sell products.

But using sex is usually done through traditional gender roles: in ads where we see men appreciating a woman where she knows she attracts attention and is complicit. But since #MeToo and #TimesUp, things are trickier. How do you make ads engaging, entertaining and, yes, sexy without alienating someone or sparking difficult accusations and complaints?

Scary, huh? It prompts the ‘F’ word: fear. Many ad messages are driven by fear – and always have been. Not the good old-fashioned, consumer-centric fear as not being pretty enough, tall enough or wealthy enough. It is a different kind of fear. It comes from the brand side, not the consumer side. It is not a fear of losing sales but of losing face – usually with your peers.

Exercising women to think positive: Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ aims to build women’s self-confidence around being active. Created by FCB Inferno, the National Lottery-funded campaign was based on the insight that 75 per cent of women say they want to do more sport or exercise but a fear of judgement holds them back. The objective is to urge women to be physically active regardless of shape, size, age or ability and aim a kick in the stereotypes.

Not a fear of pissing off consumers, but a fear of pissing off the boss. Not a fear that we might cause envy among our competitors but a fear we might cause controversy among our shareholders. In an effort to ameliorate those fears, we often dilute the power of what we, as brands, have to say. As we are afraid to really connect, we often fail to connect at all.

So, who is going to represent audiences properly if not adland? Drama could do it. But usually drama relies on escapism, where minorities are represented in an exaggerated way where viewers tend to see it as lacking in truth. The media could do it. But they tend to address big issues. While people consider making changes, another big issue comes along.

Which brings us back to advertising. We already know ads exert a big influence on consumer behaviour, otherwise why would marketers bother investing so much? At the Cannes Lions Festival, Adam & Eve DDB said that over €22 billion was spent on advertising in the UK in 2017. Just four per cent of ads are recalled positively and seven per cent negatively.

The other 89 per cent of ads go unnoticed.

Why? It is easily to blame the creative. But we notice what connects with us. Human connections are memorable. So, if our challenge is to be remembered rather than go unnoticed, the strategy should be to connect rather than be afraid. Wide eyes, big heart, no fear. Easy to say, less easy to do. Easy also to jump on the brand activism bandwagon.

In a rush to be seen to be politically correct (PC) and on message for the current#movement,  we can sometimes deviate from our own brand authenticity and push out a message that may be well meaning, but which ultimately loses the intended audience. Activism for the sake of activism in an effort to try and reach the activist community is seen for what it is: cynicism.

Or, at the very least, it is it seen as an attempt to detach those of us feeling ‘woke’ from the money in our wallets. It is no good to slap an equal opportunity message on your packaging, or your end frame, if you persist on paying your female employees less. You cannot just throw the odd black or Asian person into your background extras and call yourself diverse.

Nor can you get on to the gender neutral bandwagon unless you mean it.

In today’s social media-driven world, it is easy for a consumer to find out if where you are putting your money is backed up by your actions as an employer. You cannot espouse equal rights in your TV commercial for anyone still questioning or moving along the sexuality continuum if gay men, lesbians, or those transitioning, cannot be open in your offices.

We live in a ‘faux-powerment’ advertising world.

In her book, Unscrewed, Jaclyn Friedman explained faux-powerment. It is where people are urged to substitute symbols of sexual empowerment for sexual power. It may feel great to do a boudoir photo shoot, but until we live in a society where if a partner shares photos with the world without sanction, it is the partner who is shamed and not us – that is not real power.

Friedman says there is nothing wrong with doing things that make you feel good and strong and sexual. But those feelings by themselves do not amount to full sexual freedom.

Faux-powerment is selling body positivity while telling women they should feel bad enough about their cellulite or their armpits to buy whatever miracle fix is being sold. It is about how we can have ‘pornstar chic’ while ignoring why women who work in the sex industry face stigma, awful working conditions and sometimes criminalisation and physical violence.

Faux-powerment is the wild popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, a story that was sold as celebrating female sexual awakening but actually shows a woman being stalked and abused into fulfilling a wealthy man’s desires. “Faux-powerment is a culture where breasts are used to sell everything, everywhere at all times, but breastfeeding is still taboo,” Friedman said.

Limp, greasy, greying hair? Try this shampoo.

Busy, working mum with messy kids? This floor cleaner can spruce up your life. Looking more than your age due to lack of sleep and hours in front of a computer screen? Here’s a cream to help with that. Messy, painful, tortuous periods? We can fix it with this sanitary product that will not leak and allows you to wear tennis whites even on your heaviest day.

Ads must be authentic: Images from Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ were used to parody Protein World’s ‘Beach Body’ ads which were banned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Maxine Brady writes that in a rush to be seen to be politically correct (PC) and on message for the current#movement, we can sometimes deviate from our own brand authenticity and push out a message that may be well-meaning, but which ultimately loses the intended audience.

In our faux-powerment madness, are we falsifying and diluting our messages so much that we risk undermining what real empowerment is all about? Do we fail to see that genuine power is far from the grasp of most ordinary Irish women. Just as it is far from the grasp of the black guy, the brown woman or the kid who hasn’t quite figured out his sexuality.

Imagine if we never lost sight of the fact that the fight for equal rights for women is really a fight for equality, recognition and true empowerment for everyone. What if we continue to stereotype gender in our ads, make half-hearted attempts to address the imbalances, then heap praise on campaigns from the likes of Sport England and wish we had come up with the idea?

The answer is that we will lose our place as the little island that voted for marriage equality by public referendum and that threw off the shackles of a misogynist, anti-woman regime for   Repeal the 8th. We are world leaders. Our creativity and talent is above reproach.

We can beat the rest of the world at their own game with authenticity and genuine messages. The days of stereotypes based on poorly conceived bulls-eye target audiences are over. The consumer of tomorrow will respond to stories and ideas which resonate. Stories not based on thinly-veiled stereotypes, but on powerful archetypes with which consumers will engage.

The article is based on a recent talk given by Maxine Brady on the pitfalls of stereotyping in advertising to Association of Advertisers in Ireland (AAI) members at a breakfast seminar 

Maxine Brady is co-owner, managing partner and executive producer of Pull the Trigger TV and commercials production company; her email is



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