Lack of gender and ethnic diversity in advertising industry leads to ‘lazy sexist’ stereotyping in ads, leading advertisers group head admits

‘The portrayal of women in ads is often very different from society,’ Keith Weed tells The Independent

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Friday 31 July 2020 20:15 BST
Mr Weed says the ad sector had got swept up in the 'momentum' of creating adverts which perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes
Mr Weed says the ad sector had got swept up in the 'momentum' of creating adverts which perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes

A dearth of gender and ethnic diversity in the advertising industry leads to “lazy sexist” stereotyping in adverts, the head of a leading advertisers group has admitted.

Keith Weed, president of the Advertising Association, told The Independent the ad sector had been swept up in the “momentum” of creating adverts that perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes.

Mr Weed, who was chief marketing officer at Unilever, the second largest advertiser in the world, said the portrayal of women in adverts is out of step with women in society – adding adverts routinely fail to represent “any women” he knows in real life.

He said: “Lack of gender and ethnic diversity can certainly be a contributing factor to creating ads with gender stereotypes. Another contributing factor is as an industry, we haven’t overtly committed to un-stereotyping ads.

“As an industry, we have got caught up in the momentum of creating ads in a certain way. There has been a long history of stereotyping in ads, but I do believe it has been getting better and better.

“The portrayal of women in ads is often very different from society. In ads, four per cent of women are portrayed in leadership positions, only three per cent of ads portray women with obvious intelligence, and only one per cent of women with a sense of humour. That doesn’t represent any women I know.”

Mr Weed, who worked at Unilever for 37 years, called for the advertising industry to have greater gender and ethnic diversity at all stages of the creative process – adding that people are better able to empathise with issues which are “close” to their own experiences.

“You can take a group of people and teach them to behave more diversely or you can take a diverse group of people who you wouldn’t have to teach,” he added.

He argued the advertising industry often resorts to “lazy” gendered stereotypes which have the “unintended consequence” of communicating “harmful” messages to society.

Mr Weed said ads that represent a vision of society which is stuck in the 1950’s or 1960’s, where the father is in the garage and can’t operate a washing machine and the mother is “locked in the kitchen lovingly making dinner”, no longer accurately reflect the modern-day world.

He has set up a campaign with UN Women to tackle damaging gender-based stereotypes in the advertising industry which already has the backing of 27 UK-based well-known brands spanning from Google to Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Channel 4.

The scheme will encourage diverse, non-stereotypical representations of marginalised groups within ads – with a specific focus on the experiences of women of colour – as well as taking steps to ensure greater levels of diversity among those working in the sector.

It comes after adverts endorsing harmful gender stereotypes were banned from June last year due to new guidelines issued by advertising watchdogs.

Guidelines set out by the Advertising Standards Authority stipulated British companies were no longer able to produce ads showing men and women conforming to sexist ideals, such as a man with his feet up in the living room while his wife does household chores. There has been a slew of ads which have infringed the new rules which have subsequently been banned.

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