Jane Austin: adland needs to do more to counter stereotyping than award a Glass Lion

“Why do you need yet another panel on diversity when you have the Glass Lion?” observed an ECD out in Cannes this week who shall remain nameless. With sexist ads back in the news this week, it is a comment that is timeless and timely. And it’s proof, too, that much still needs to change before the ad industry walks the talk of equality and diversity.

Looked at one way, progress does seem to be being made. Ad tropes of Carry On-style busty blondes being ogled by Sid James sorts have been largely consigned to the dustbin of history. But, to personalise it, if you want your daughters to be leaders, you need to invest now.

But there is still so much work to be done. This week’s launch of ‘Unstereotype Alliance’ – a partnership between United Nations group UN Women and leading brand owners and ad groups including Unilever and WPP to banish outdated stereotypes in advertising is, without doubt, a positive step.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, the regional government has proposed a ban on all images in the city, ads included, in which women are portrayed as “beautiful but weak, hysterical, dumb, crazy, naïve or ruled by their emotions”. It’s undoubtedly an enlightened move and the plans have been already been backed by the state government.

A year after New York agency Badger & Winters’ anonymously released YouTube video #WomenNotObjects went viral, the organisers of the International Festival of Creativity in Cannes have adopted the agency’s founder and CCO Madonna Badger’s recommendation that jurors be advised not to award trophies to ads that objectify women.


And let’s not forget the small but growing number of ads in which the bald realities of 21st Century women’s lives are presented, rather than fantasy. Witness Bodyform’s championing of the normalisation of menstruation in last year’s ‘Blood’ (below) and last month’s Marks & Spencer’s ‘Spend It Well.’

But by and large, it’s two steps forward, one step back. And one reason is the broader, societal backdrop. We need to get more men onboard and engaged in the push for gender equality and diversity. The rise of the so-called ‘men’s rights movement’ shows that the real fight starts now.

We need to encourage men to join the conversation so women don’t end up shouting into an echo chamber about gender equality and diversity. We can’t do it on our own. And after a week of diversity debates – some good, some as authentic as the fake tan I sported at the beginning of the week – I’m concerned that there will be a backlash or worse still – nothing.

We need everyone, not just men, to combat anti-women and gender biased language and behaviour wherever they encounter it, from the locker room to the office – do it with humour if you like, but please don’t just dismiss it as ‘bants.’ These things start small, but infect society to become the norm.

Cast your eyes across the Atlantic.‘Fat’, ‘pig’, ‘dog’, ‘slob’ and ‘disgusting animal’ are amongst the names US President Donald Trump has called women. Aside from his sexist language, critics state many of his administration’s policies – from attacking abortion rights to weakening protections against gender-based violence and eroding family economic security – threaten the wellbeing of both women and families.

But it’s not just about Trump.

Just last month, outgoing Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs warned of increasing sexist attacks against women in public life. Meanwhile, harassment and prejudicial behaviour is rife in Silicon Valley. The behaviour of venture capitalist David Bonderman who last week resigned from Uber’s board of directors is just one reason why the tech industry’s “problem” with women has become front page news.

Against this backdrop, is it any wonder progress has been slow? And even where it is evident, all too often the picture is, well, mixed.

A study published this week by ESMT Berlin business school showed that while women must be confident and caring to succeed in the workplace, men only need to display confidence to get ahead. The reason? Well, previous studies already show that when women display behaviour consistent with being ambitious they are not liked. ESMT Berlin’s findings suggest women need to show “pro-social orientation” to counterbalance this negative effect.

Back to advertising and the issue of sexism in ads and gender inequality in the workforce – along with stereotyping generally and diversity in all its shapes and forms – are closely entwined. Which is why, rather than worry about which to address first and how best, both need to be confronted from all sides, and fast, by everyone across the industry – and that includes clients.

The industry needs to wake up to how, at a grassroots level, the world is changing.

An estimated 56 per cent of 13 to 20 year-olds say someone they know actively uses gender-neutral pronouns, according to a recent report by JWT’s Innovation Group, which also found more than one third of Generation Z respondents – those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s – strongly agree that gender does not define a person as much as it used to.

According to Mintel, Gen Z represent an annual purchasing power of $44bn. More importantly, they will account for 40 per cent of all consumers by 2020.

So the anonymous ECD who believes that, on its own, the Glass Lion – which is all about recognising culture-shifting creativity that sets out to positively impact ingrained gender inequality, imbalance or injustice (and is just an award anyway) – is enough, should look to his own business. And he should wake up, too, to the fact he’s looking at the situation the wrong way round.

For it’s only when there is no longer any need for such an award that the advertising industry can justifiably say: “job done.”

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About Jane Austin

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Jane Austin is the founder and owner of PR agency Persuasion Communications.