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Gender (in)equality in advertising

Michael Lynch & Laura Moon Lagas
12 Sep 2018

Challenging unconscious bias is an essential move in solving advertising’s gender problem.

The scene was Edinburgh University’s iconic Business School. The occasion was the 8th annual Marketing Society meeting. The topic was about as hot as it gets right now.

The annual Ogilvy lecture tackled gender inequality head on and our Marketing Director, Michael Lynch and Account Manager, Laura Moon Lagas were there to witness what happened.

Shocking statistics

The discussion was led by Syl Saller – Chief Marketing Office at Diageo and President of the Marketing Society. She was joined by Grainne Wafer – Global Brand Director for Baileys, joint lead in Diageo’s Progressive Gender Portrayal Programme and Diageo representative in the Unstereotype Alliance.

Syl’s opening remarks had the audience shaking their heads in disbelief. Statistics show that there are still twice as many male characters in adverts as there are females and of those portrayed as employed in adverts, over 75% are male. The problem is more nuanced than people think - one study even found that when women make up 17% of people in a crowd men believe it’s actually 50/50. When it’s made up of 33% women, men believe women are in the majority.

There’s obviously still plenty of gender bias (however unintentional) in advertising and acknowledging these stereotypes is not enough. Change is imperative, and marketers must do their part to lead that change.

When we’re making ads and you see a couple of women in ads you think it’s balanced, but actually it’s not.

Meeting the challenge

To address diversity and break down common barriers in advertising, Diageo undertook an extensive analysis of their own work. They identified where unconscious bias has impacted their creative, and developed a progressive diversity framework and training programme. This has now been rolled out to their 1,300 marketers and agencies across the globe in just six short months.

Spearheaded by Grainne, the framework establishes a simple and practical checklist which marketers can use to critically assess their work. It encourages them to consider who is being portrayed (representation), whose point of view the story is being told from (perception), who is directing the action (agency relationships) and whether the characters presented are well-rounded and ‘real’ (characterisation). All this is intended to drive change and move away from relying on stereotypes as a shortcut for building content.

Syl was quick to emphasise that it’s still in its infancy and that they “still make mistakes”. However, the learning culture at Diageo has ensured that they continue to put diversity at the forefront of everything they do and this is reflected in the work they’re producing.  

One campaign that Syl appeared particularly proud of was the Guinness ‘Made of More’ campaign. This was aired in 2015 in partnership with rugby player Gareth Thomas, the first professional player to come out as gay. After the previous Guinness Campaign ‘Clock’ had failed to hit the mark, this campaign focused on real stories of real people with strong characters. It not only resulted in a ‘Glass Lion’ win at Cannes, but also continues to challenge stereotypes by using the Guinness voice and brand.

Taking action

Grainne urges the wider industry to follow suit. We all need to work on developing an environment where people feel confident enough to have conversations about stereotypes and question why things are being done in a certain way. This is a commercially viable strategy with progressive adverts proven to be 47% more likely to be effective in both the long and short term in harnessing the purchasing power of women (The Guardian, 2016). It’s also crucial in wider societal terms as we absorb content at a more frightening rate than ever before.

As Nadya Bellan-White (Chief Operating Officer, Ogilvy) stated at the commencement of the lecture, we as an industry must raise ourselves above the status quo and be tough in the face of adversity, even when it makes us unpopular. Only as a collective can we make the necessary change to wake up the unconscious bias and make equality a norm for the future.