Advertisements have a greater impact on our society than one can imagine. Babies at the age of six months begin to recognise brand logos and advisements which becomes a part of their socialisation. All of us watch various kinds of advertisements on a daily basis but we’re so distracted while watching it, we usually tend to overlook the enforcement of gender stereotypes that later influences the culture of the society.
People at large, define themselves with their gender but fail to understand that Gender is a social construct. It refers to the roles, behaviours, activities, attributes and opportunities that any society considers appropriate for girls and boys, and women and men. Gender interacts with, but is different from, the binary categories of biological sex.
Gender has a wider spectrum and does not dissolve in the binaries; it is an assumption of an individual that they identify themselves with. Gender is fluid so it cannot be imposed by society. However, large corporations and companies use gender as a tool to sell their products and almost forces people to think in terms of binaries. Often these stereotypes are harmful. Along with gender stereotypes they also enforce notions such as false notions of masculinity and objectification of women. Influence of advertisements might not be quick but it is cumulative, and most importantly it is subconscious.
The portrayal of Traditional masculinity and femininity
We live in a society where there has been preconceived notions about masculinity and femininity. These ideas force people to live in binaries and are enforced in order to sell products by means of advertising.
The idea of traditional masculinity is a set of attributes decided by the society that are associated with men. For example – strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness are considered to be some of the ‘manly’ attributes. A man must adhere to these attributes to be known as a man. These stereotypes are redundant; however, a large number of people who grew up following these ideals and brands are taking advantage of that narrative and enforcing these stereotypes to advertise their product.
Traditional femininity, on the other hand, consists of being sensitive, submissive and shy. If not that, they’re highly sexualised and objectified by most brands as a tool to grab the attention of the heterosexual male audience. Women are often urged to pursue beauty and sex appeal regardless of the brand message. There’s an excessive commodification of the female body.
Advertisements that enforce gender bias and stereotypes
The old spice commercials
Old Spice is an American brand of male grooming products encompassing deodorants and antiperspirants, shampoos, body washes, and soaps. Their advertisements have a humorous theme and are very popular. A lot of people remember the brand ‘Old spice’ due to their outlandish commercials.
All of their commercials have one thing in common. Well-built men talking about smelling a certain way to be a real man. This is a commercial for a body wash that is supposed to make you smell like a man. Now, since we can’t actually smell the body wash, advertisers and brands sell you the experience instead. Here, the experience is of a well-built man who is repeatedly belittling men smelling like ‘ladies body wash’ with the tag in the end that says ‘Smell Like a Man, Man’.
Now, gender plays a huge role in such type of advertising. Most men don’t buy grooming products for themselves, so the target audience in this Ad won’t primarily be men instead it will be women as they’re the ones buying products for the men in their life. The man in the advertisement, clearly mentions ‘ladies’, which again, gives in to the heteronormativity of the society. Not just this commercial, they have a number of advertisements with men having supposedly perfect bodies advertising the product under the name of ‘manliness’.
These advertisements lack representation and propagate stereotypes of masculinity in a subconscious manner.
Advertisements of the Meat Industry
Burger King is infamously known for its controversial ads. Most of their advertisements use the elements of sex appeal which is a highly problematic approach for a brand that caters a target audience of all ages. For example –
This advertisement suggests that it is okay to poke at the male insecurity of being small down under. The woman has a displeased look on her face and covers herself when she catches the other second man looking at her who is holding a relatively smaller burger. It glorifies the idea of unrealistic standards set for men without even mentioning the qualities of the actual burger. It just sells the idea of what is considered desirable and what is not. This advertisement was later banned.
McDonald’s is another American fast-food company that has advertised its meat burgers with the false notion of masculinity.
Here, the Burger is advertised as something a ‘Manly Man’ would consume along with some of the qualities of a supposedly ‘Manly man’.
McDonald’s China built a ‘ 100% beef! 100% Pure Man!’ ad campaign and ran a discount promotional offer which was only beneficial to men.
Now, not only does it exclude all other genders but it also promotes false notions of manliness that are harmful.
The meat industry at large chooses Masculinity to advertise for Meat products. Numerous studies have found that larger portions and unhealthy food are considered to be more masculine, while healthy food and smaller portions are considered more feminine. This is because Men are supposed to have zero inhibition and are expected to eat like kings. On the other hand, women are supposed to be caring, empathetic and lean towards a smaller diet.
Mother dairy ‘Kid and mom’ Advertisement
Mother Dairy is an Indian company that manufactures, markets and sells milk, milk products and other edible products. In the earlier years, the brand catered to a traditional audience.
In this particular ad, the woman is calmly explaining her mistake of breaking her husband’s trophy while doing household chores. Instead of understanding the situation, the man scolds her in a much harsher tone, asks her to never touch his belongings and leaves the dinner table. The mother is later shown to be covering the crime for her son.
The little boy was clearly scared of his father’s anger which is why his mother covered it up for him in the first place. The message of that advertisement was supposed to be about a mother’s sacrifice but there would have been a better way to portray that instead of having her husband yell at her for a trivial mistake. Children’s advertisements are usually governed by the idea of gender-based stereotypes which tend to condition gender roles and identities.
One of the popular examples is Barbie is for girls and Hot wheels are for boys. Barbie reinforced an unrealistic beauty ideal where all of their dolls were thin and the girls in the Ad behaved passively and cooperatively. Hot wheels, on the other hand, represented speed, power, and portrayed boys to be active and aggressive.
Kinder joy has two different packages for girls and boys represented by pink and blue respectively. The contents of the food are the same but the toys inside are different according to their gender.
There has been a positive change in advertising recently. Some brands are breaking stereotypes and learning from past mistakes. For example this Mother dairy advertisement for Dairy Whitener.
A man brings tea for his wife and apologises for not waking her up on time. It represents enhancing relationships with your loved ones.
The famous Gillette Ad addresses the False notion of Masculinity. Not only that, but they also went out of their way and attacked their target audience to send the message loud and clear. They challenged the notion of ‘boys will be boys’ and encouraged the idea that being a man is much more than being violent or rude to others.
The ad received a significant backlash but it just shows how the society is ignorant when a big brand doesn’t adhere to stereotypes and tries to address an issue instead. The stereotypical differences are created, they don’t just exist out of thin air.
Advertisements have an impact on a subconscious level and this is why the brands and the content creators for such ads should take accountability and create gender-sensitive and gender-neutral advertisements that don’t harm society.
Check out our other blog on Psychology and its role in marketing.