Why do we still see sexism in advertising?

According to a survey published by Mediaprism in November 2012 for the Laboratoire de l’égalité (equality laboratory), 56% of women and 34% of men feel they come into contact with sexist behaviour on a daily basis. (1) How can we explain this persistence of gender stereotypes? Who can be held responsible? What measures should be taken to fight against sexism? How can we make both the public and brands aware of the issues caused by stereotypes?

The media world receives sexism accusations

The majority of participants in this study believe the media are particularly responsible for the persistence of stereotypes. In fact 67% of them are in favour of a watchdog committee who would be responsible for ensuring that television ads do not reflect gender stereotypes. Nearly 8 out of 10 participants also believe that both public and private television should join the fight against stereotypes.

Catherine Lenain, a member of the « La meute » movement, and Marie-Noëlle Bas, President of the French Feminist association « Les chiennes de gardes” answer our questions.

Womenology: Why do stereotypes still appear in advertising? Who can be held responsible for this?

M-N.B: Advertisers who use sexist stereotypes to get attention and increase their sales.

C.L: The concept of stereotypes is difficult to understand, advertising has a duty to « systematise, » to get the message across in a short space of time, but in this case stereotypes are not far away!

Womenology: Do you think people always realise when stereotypes appear in communication campaigns?

M-N.B: According to the Mediaprism survey for the “Laboratoire de l’Egalité” (equality laboratory), three quarters of French people find sexist advertising annoying or intolerable, but most do not recognize the stereotypes they convey…

C.L: Good question! Complaints received by the board of advertising standards, associated to the ARPP, reflect the awareness of viewers or groups of viewers on the issue. However, further analysis shows that this awareness, more or less based on stereotypes, often depends on a more personal interpretation.

Womenology: Are men also affected by sexism?

M-N.B: Yes, especially when men are depicted in a role presented as implicitly out of character (hoovering or looking after children).

C.L: Of course! Remember the ethical regulations are called ‘Image de la personne humaine’ (image of the human being), rather than ‘Image de la femme’ (Image of the Woman). Several cases ruled by the JDP focus on cases involving men (these cases are available directly on the JDP website).

Womenology: What should brands do to avoid falling into the pitfalls of sexism?

M-N.B: Don’t fall into the comfort of stereotypes which seem funny by using implications of sexism as well as racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Be a bit more imaginative.

C.L: It’s very simple: either companies (advertisers, agencies and media) follow the ARPP and use this advice before broadcasting their campaigns, or they directly access guidelines that are freely available on our website (arpp.org).

Womenology: Do you have any examples in mind of brands that have improved how women are portrayed through their advertisements?

M-N.B: Dove , Weston…

C.L: The vast majority of advertisers have followed these rules for a long time now. We publish an annual report (on our site) about the implementation of these rules (the 10th will be released at the end of 2013). The percentage of ads which failed to comply represents less than 0.1% of all ads examined: 70,000 messages were examined in 2011.

Womenology: What methods/ tools has your organisation set up in order to raise the awareness of public institutions and in the media?

M-N.B: We are launching petitions to alert the board of advertising standards, the Ministry of Women’s Rights, the High Council for Equality and the Superior Audiovisual Council.

C.L: We have many regular exchanges with the government, we’ve signed two commitments charters with them; the first on respecting human image in advertising and the second on body image. We work seamlessly on the development of ethical texts. We respond to all media inquiries.

Interviewed by 

Sources: (1) http://www.laboratoiredelegalite.org/, the results presented in this document are derived from a sample of 2733 individuals. Participants who gave in an incomplete questionnaire were removed from the analysis. The survey was conducted online with the EmailetVous community, composed of Internet users aged 18 years or over. The sample was adjusted to ensure a representative analysis of both male and female participants based on gender, age, socio-professional category, and place of residence.

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